>STEEL SKIN by Drama Box

>reviewed by james koh and daniel teo

>date: 15 jul 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the drama centre
>rating: see below

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.

>>>>>Two's company

>TOP OF THE WORLD (***) by James

An urban fairy tale that slowly disintegrates. A life torn asunder by a realisation that the perfect world inhabited is not perfect after all. The rose-tinted lens that is used to view the world is shown to be flawed and cracked. And the irony of course, is that it takes only small, minute incidents to trigger the events that disrupt and destroy your carefully planned life.

This is the dramatic thrust of 'Top of the World', the play that replaced 'Steel' in Drama Box's latest double-bill that was to be 'Steel Skin'. Originally performed in 1998, this one-woman monologue starts off with a wife who is about to leave her husband and her life in Singapore for the hills of Tibet. The play then gently reveals the various layers of her carefully constructed life, like her obsession for shopping for shoes. But with the bloody death of her dog, her life in suburbia-land is revealed to be less happy than it originally appeared and cracks start to fracture the woman's bourgeois existence. In fact, the contentment initially depicted proved ultimately to be forced, as arbitrary and as shallow as the emotions in the Disney songs played before the start of the performance.

Written and directed by Kok Heng Leun, the Artistic Director of Drama Box, TOP OF THE WORLD is filled with profound gaps and silences that provide a subtle and complex characterisation of a wife trapped within the constraints of patriarchal society. Meanwhile, Zelda Tatiana Ng in the lead role, gave a carefully nuanced performance that traced a woman's painful realisation of a world that is constricting her freedom and individuality. On one hand, she is shown to be under the control of her husband, who underneath an exterior of gentleness treats her in a brutish and often callous manner. On the other hand, society (through different forms of media and technology, as exemplified by the strident mechanical sounds used throughout the performance) is also depicted as the force that provides the template to build and construct her so-called life. In a highly unnerving scene, shadows from the television screen flicker over her face as she mechanically lists the various channels available on cable.

And perhaps, in a clever twist, it seems that even during moments when she is battling out her existentialist problems, her life is depicted as going through a series of clichés. Like a cheap television melodrama, lightning and rain are added as a sympathetic background while a mushy ballad plays on during a moment of distress. In fact the play seems to be laughing at her puny efforts to live her own life. Her attempt at a flight to freedom is undermined by the fact that Tibet is chosen as the destination for self-understanding and fulfillment, a place that has become a spiritual cliché for people in search of themselves. Moreover, having her blindly choose this particular country by simply pointing to a place on the map, provides a sinister inevitability of her failure to ever try to escape from the boundaries of her world/the play.

There are many wonderful scenes in the play that captured the liminal sense of loss and alienation that the wife experiences in her world, a world that soon becomes pervaded with a palpable sense of emotional tension and anxiety. In one instance, she stands in the middle of the stage surrounded by discarded shoes, trying to find which shoe/life is the correct fit. But it has to be said that the play at times became too subtle to maintain dramatic tension and meandered too much to provide a sense of true catharsis at the end of the performance; or if a form of non-cathartic theatre had been attempted, the dramatic impetus did not focus the tension to a point where the audience was left disturbed and disoriented, hungering for more.

The play ended with the wife trying to find her own voice by attempting to sing the ballad that was played earlier in the play, but is soon drowned out by the taped version of the song. It is with this moment of pathetic helplessness that the play powerfully captured the tragic individual trapped in an all too claustrophobic society.


>SKIN (****) by Daniel

Judging from 'Skin''s performance, it would have been interesting to see how 'Steel' would have turned out. Taking inspiration from World Hug Week, the play was an exploration of what it means to be human and the feel of another person's skin onto you - the warmth, the comfort.

A mother and son are stranded, waiting for the father to come when they encounter a serious traffic accident. The son yearns for a mother's touch. The mother fears to touch him, fears the feeling of the pulsating rush of humanness beneath that thin layer of skin...

All aspects of the play worked well together in synergy - the fine acting coupled with the imaginative script made the innovative set come alive. Leanne Ong, a true veteran of Mandarin theatre, impressed with her layered performance of a mother split apart by her love for her child and her fear of losing him. Confident and assured of the subtle nuances in her character, she had a firm grasp of the mother's emotional mindscape. Li Xie as the son was from another world altogether - literally. Wearing a big yellow clownish pajama, she was Tim-Burton-eerie with her anemic pallor juxtaposed with anime-big reddish eyes. Prancing and crawling around like some wild animal most of the time, she was a surreal figure in the graveyard of metal and automobiles gone to eternal sleep.

As the antithesis to Leanne's placid but tired mother, the son was a frenzy of activity with his incessant ploys to get a hug. Li Xie played him with the right intensity and sensitivity at the same time, perfectly translating the complex blend of emotions into the simple facial expressions of a beatific smile or glistering eyes ready to break into tears. A canvass waiting to be explored, she was amazingly versatile alternating between pleading boy and wrenched prostitute. It was the pairing of these two wonderful actresses that propelled the play beyond the ordinary. At turns tragic and wryly funny, the tension between them carried the play, twin beams supporting the entire infrastructure. The juxtaposition was engaging as they successfully played off each other.

The set was a delightful composition of meshed up metal and fragmented cars. Fleshing out the abstract, the set resonated with the decay so putrid in the air. Each twisted beam, each damaged rod was their injured soul cast in aluminum, captured in steel. Structurally the play was tight and did not lapse into excess (except for the last few minutes). Suspense was heightened sporadically throughout the night by the ghastly incantation of the boy, a bizarre rhyme that reached horrifying heights when recited in the automobile graveyard.

The audience was deeply involved with the complex emotional motivations of the estranged mother-and-son pair from start to finish. When the two bared their soul, it was always so easy for the audience to partake their sorrow, to feel the emotional wasteland that separated them both. Eschewing didacticism or any need to preach, the play touched base with the audience with its honesty. The characters spoke in their own voices, showing us their scars.

For that one night, they showed us the value of a hug is not confined to the corny stories found in Reader's Digest. It is real. It is human. It is skin. Touching. Connecting. Feeling.