>TITOUDAO by Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble

>reviewed by james koh

>date: 7 apr 2000
>time: 8pm
>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.

>>>>>song of your life

Did anyone catch 'Topsy Turvy' by Mike Leigh that was recently screened during the Singapore Film Festival? This brilliant film tells the story of Gilbert and Sullivan, the kings of Victorian popular operetta during the late 19th century, and traces the making of their enduring hit 'The Mikado'; at the same it celebrates this art-form which has slowly died out. In a similar manner, Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble's TITOUDAO gives a loving portrait of the Chinese wayang during the Singapore of yesterday, an art-form that is also fading in popularity. Staged with success in 1994, it has been revived for the celebration of the 10th anniversary of Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble.

TITOUDAO is ostensibly about the once popular Hokkien opera of the same name, whose title character is the loyal servant to Ti Boon Long, an impoverished scholar during ancient China whose once prosperous family went into bankruptcy. Initially rejected by his betrothed Teng Lay Qiao, Ti Boon Long obtains money from Lay Qiao's benevolent step sister, Swee Lian, to travel to the capital for the imperial examination. Through the help of his loyal servant, Ti Boon Long's family fortune and position in society is restored. Framing this staging of the opera is the meta-narrative of the process of staging TITOUDAO itself, as well as the real life story of Madam On Ah Chiam, who made the role of Titoudao famous, and succeeded in becoming a famous wayang artiste.

Goh Boon Teck, the son of Madam On Ah Chiam, and the director and playwright of TITOUDAO, had provided a vibrant homage to wayang artistes, whose street performances in the forgotten days of the past, were once the sole form of public entertainment. With the camaraderie that these artistes share, as revealed during the scenes where we go 'behind the scenes', Goh captures beautifully the workaday existences that are made of untidy shreds and patches - be it the gossip of new boyfriends or the bickering of obtaining lucky numbers for 4D and 'Chap-jiki'.

>>'we are reminded that in any age, creative expression is perhaps one of the most personal and most communal of all enterprises'

Yet with the scenes of Madam On's childhood in the kampong, to the games played with and stories told by her 12 other siblings, to her adoption by a wayang troupe at the age of 16, to her rise in fame, to the abuse she received from her mother-in-law - the play is acutely attuned to the nuances of the family structure of Singapore in the 1950s-60s, and the gender inequality of that time. This was the time where infants were ignored by their fathers if they were female and where daughters-in-law were seen as servants to the family they married into -- expected to do all the housework and oblige their in-laws.

TITOUDAO sparkled with clear ideas about the way of the world in Singapore about half a century ago. Yet the effect is one of casual artlessness, due in a large part to the naturalistic dialogue and the engaging characters of the well-crafted script and the taut and clever direction. With the aid of an ingenious set which allowed the audience to see the backstage of the wayang troupe as they got ready for their performances, the world of the stage and the world behind the stage were effortlessly interchanged. At the same time, the play seamlessly shifted from the past of Madam On to the present time when the opera is being staged, while reality and fantasy intermingled in a sequence where Madam On upon being adopted by the wayang troupe, was met by the 'gods' of the stage who detailed the hard life she will have when starting wayang training.

The sterling cast had the right amount of chemistry between them and breathed vital vigor and life into the characters. Notable performances included the talented Pamela Oei who gave a captivating performance as both Titoudao and Madam On. Performing the former with charming enthusiasm, she portrayed the latter as a strong willed individual who was at once feisty and vulnerable, capturing the contradiction of being both a female/mother and a stage performer. Meanwhile, Beatrice Chia provided a note of gravitas to the various roles she performed, including that of Ti Boon Long while Benjamin Ng gave a highly camp performance as the bitchy Teng Lay Qiao, and had the audience rolling in the aisles with his tart looks and his deft sashays.

Art about the artistic process can easily slip into facile self absorption and it is to the credit of this production that the play is a deep and meaningful celebration of an art-form that once provided entertainment to the public of Singapore and where the performers were the pop idols of their time (In a hilarious scene, Madam On as a young teenager, pretends to be famous opera singer while her sister acts as an adoring fan, rushing to get her autograph).

Near the end of the performance, the character of Madam On remarks that she is forced to perform as a 'ge-tai' singer to draw in the crowds before the opera starts. (The irony of course is that to draw in the English educated crowd to watch this performance, English sub-titles are projected during the Hokkien opera). But when she reminds us about how opera has affected her life, and then performs the climactic ending of the opera itself to the audience, we are reminded that in any age, creative expression is perhaps one of the most personal and most communal of all enterprises.