>TALL TALES by Imaginarts and Jade Apple

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 21 nov 2000
>time: 7:30pm
>venue: the drama centre
>rating: **1/2

>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.


You people don't know how to camp over here. And for once, I'm not talking radical queer politics, I'm merely suggesting that the closest your average Singaporean ever gets to a night at the mercy of nature is a three-man tent in the school field with his mobile phone on silent. Call me an ungrateful ang moh, but it seems to me that in the rest of the world, if you've forgotten the can opener, you go and hunt something to eat; whereas in Singapore, you call Pizza Hut delivery and complain if they're three minutes late.

Cradled in this protective network of Starbucks and Seven-Elevens, can the call of the wild be heard or feared? Can the campfire stories weave their ancient magic? And still more, in the comfort of a theatre, can the darkness of the Deepwood cast its shadows on the urban consciousness? Well, going by Imaginarts' production of Grimm-inspired TALL TALES, they can and they can't.

Director Brian Seward, realising that such story-telling staples as mosquitoes and marshmallows were not available to him in the Drama Centre, had nonetheless decided to incorporate as much of the experience as he could by going all out for unpredictability and camaraderie. From a repertoire of eleven tales (itself reduced from a more ambitious total of fourteen) the actors were to recite a different and unannounced seven per night; and these stories were to be framed within the context of an Autumn Fayre, where quasi-mythical friends reunite to share food and fables.

Even falling three tales short of their projected total, the actors had obviously put in considerable effort to learn and rehearse around two and a half hours' worth of material. While this is commendable and will no doubt persuade ah pek that the kids of today have a work ethic, it doesn't make a whole lot of difference to the audience, the vast majority of whom, in a six-day run, are only going to come and see it once.

>>'while TALL TALES was entertaining and reasonably solidly put together, it wasn't what it had promised'

No, where this format had the potential to succeed was in the semi-improvised linkage between the chosen tales. Sadly, it was here that it failed most completely. Finding a foil for Carol Ann Duffy's spare prose was always going to prove difficult. I suppose it could have been done in two ways: either the cast could have attempted to match her poeticism, going for a very theatrical, structured approach and staying firmly within the world of the story; or they could have let go of structure completely, separated themselves from Duffy's world and, not to put too fine a point on it, had a laugh. What they actually did was not so much a mixture of the two approaches - more a murky emulsion. There was neither form nor abandon: characters were uncomfortably reluctant to speak over each other, but were unsure who would speak next; there was little sense of camaraderie and there was mind-numbing repetition of truly banal lines.

Fortunately, the meat of the production was much tastier than its bones. The young cast attacked their parts with infectious enthusiasm and while some of it may have been misplaced (random Scottish accent, anyone?) it was entertaining nonetheless. The pacing was right and there was just about enough capital 'a' Acting going on to differentiate the numerous characters everyone had to play. Certainly in the stories (if not the linkage) everyone was at very least pleasantly watchable, some more so.

Watchability was further enhanced by the extremely versatile duo of Dominic Wan and Wendy E. Woon, providing live music and sound FX. Whatever crazy instruments they twanged and blew proved outstandingly atmospheric, and the set also helped by contriving to seem both spacious and claustrophobic, depending on its well-positioned lights.

My main quibble about the tales themselves is that Seward hadn't done what he said he'd do with them. I quote: "…we have taken off Disney's sugar coating, to bring back the edge of darkness that made these stories at the same time enchanting and the stuff of nightmare." Enchanting fair enough, but the "stuff of nightmare"? Even though the stories were littered with abuse, death, trickery and mutilation, I was only once made to feel vaguely uncomfortable, let alone scared. ("You've done it before, so you'll do it again" - brrr… creepy. Okay, maybe you had to be there.) People getting their eyes clawed out should be a terrifying thing when presented visually. It should be a chance to translate into theatrical terms the thrill of fear that tickles the spine of the campfire listener. Seated in a comfy auditorium, where there were no ambushing beasties in the bushes we needed more than the simple words and a bit of token staggering. We didn't get it.

So while TALL TALES was entertaining and reasonably solidly put together, it wasn't what it had promised, and I left feeling that my marshmallows had been slightly under-toasted.