>DREAMING UP A PRINCE by The Necessary Stage

>reviewed by judy tan

>date: 28 apr 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the necessary stage black box
>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.


Let's face it: "educational" plays are difficult to produce without falling into the trap of over-moralising the theme and its messages. In this respect, and in view of its target audience, DREAMING UP A PRINCE may be considered highly successful already. The script keeps in mind who it is speaking to and relates without being patronising.

In The Necessary Stage's Famfest 2001, the show stands out because it boasts the description of being "an interactive role-play workshop". I entered in trepidation. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I enjoy being a passive observer (in fact, I happen to welcome interactive productions with open arms, albeit sometimes the only interaction I want to partake in is throttling the pan-faced actors) so much as the idea that I might be expected to spout opinions or (gasp) even act out what I want to see on stage about a topic is rather removed from my reality. What would I know about the complexities of under aged sex in the twenty-first century? Especially when the play was initially targeted at pre-pubescent teens before being reworked for this run.

The overall structure of DREAMING UP A PRINCE was definitely well thought out. As facilitator-cum-artistic-director Alvin Tan explained, a scripted half-hour play was first performed, followed by a "sharing" session, (with a pair of social workers), before a "hot-seating" session. For those less attuned to the lingo - this is where the characters (i.e. hapless actors) get put on the hot seat (literally) and are grilled by the audience on things ranging from their motives to thoughts to definitions of life's fundamentals, or a request could come from the audience to replay certain scenes. Tough, I swear. This final sequence would prove to be the deciding factor as to the aftertaste in one's mouth as one leaves the black box. In the hands of lesser-experienced cast members, it would be a huge risk and in this case, it really showed the competency of the individual cast members.

>>'It was refreshing to see how the cast took on the roles with such aplomb, and everyone looked like they were really having fun.'

However, not only does the final outcome depend on the cast member's initiative, it also hangs on the whims of the particular audience for that night. Yup, where people like (and totally unlike) myself come into the picture and anything could happen. Shudder.

The premise is this: a 'Romeo and Juliet' -like story between a 15 year old (i.e under aged) secondary school girl (played by Serena Ho) and an 18 year old (i.e. of age) junior college schoolboy (played by Ian Loy); spliced with the cheesy, cotton-candy coated stylised caricature of a prince, a princess and a royal help/best friend in a fairy-tale. Your usual ill-fated BGR ensues until "that thing"(i.e. SEX) happens. Then you go crazy on the pause/play and rewind buttons on the script.

The first half an hour was well-crafted, rib-tickling and enjoyable, tackling the otherwise grave matter with much humour and decided light-handedness. As usual, Natalie Hennedige (the playwright, director, cast member and facilitator all rolled into one) delivered well, with a sharp, witty play of words, caricatures and bubblegum pop. The simple set of three multi-coloured cubes with three different coloured screens behind them set the comic-book mood in the Black Box. Initially reflecting a talk-show format setting (where you half-expect Alvin to morph into an Asian Oprah Winfrey), the set is moved around and reconfigured by the cast as the show goes on, but returns to its "talk-show" mode at the end of this first segment. Makes one feel like part of a "live-TV audience".

Snappy and MTV-ish, (no doubt pandering to the younger boyband-crazy crowd), it featured a well-chosen, campy and catchy musical soundtrack, either as background for the "Prince" (played by Ian Loy) to make his hilarious entrance a la a Backstreet Boy, during a sensual "making-out" scene, or as the text of the scene itself, such as where the cast lip-synched to the strains of Wheatus' 'Teenage Dirtbag'. Makes for new meaning the next time one hears the tune. It was refreshing to see how the cast took on the roles with such aplomb, and everyone looked like they were really having fun.

Hyper-realism set in thereafter, when festival director Yap Ching Wi and Alvin Tan, as facilitators (aka show hosts), took over the microphone to get the ball rolling on discussions and audience feedback during the second segment. With a jolt, you begin to recognise your fellow audience members as individuals while they proffer opinions on how they'd like to see the play turn out and what else they'd like to know about the characters. All that humour from the first segment was conspicuously missing, save for a stint in the final segment, (the "hot-seating") where a male audience member dressed up in a housecoat to play the highly unrealistic "idealised" mother. Sigh.

Essentially, the problem was perhaps that there were no ethical parameters set for the discussion segments, especially with the mixture of largely mature audience and minority teens. The behaviour of the audience thus modified into being saintly and more-moralistic-than-thou. Self-conscious, they were unable to explore more personal thoughts and beliefs, but rather split into two factions- the "let's-set-a- good-example" adult half and the "let's-not-shock-the-adults" half, with the former collectively baying "sex is wrong" and the latter nodding in polite obedience. (or secret disagreement, I couldn't tell). This was ultimately frustrating since personally I found the entire segment too preachy and going nowhere. Also, in particular, Ian Loy (as Roy) tended to get most of the blame as the older, more knowledgeable and thus perpetuator of the "crime". One could feel the feminist vibes shooting through the roof at this point. While Serena Ho (as the female protagonist) got off easy with the audience giving her a more communicative mom, the poor boy got grilled on issues such as guilt. As compared to his two female counterparts (who appeared to have given more thought and depth to their characters) during this segment, he came across as immature and unsure of his character, making his schoolboy jock character seem more like a bullying wimp, unsure and confused. Oh well, the audience reaps what it sows - in this case, what it is willing to vocalise.

Dreaming up a prince? At a price. I wonder how many teens stay off sex after this.

(Check out Matthew's alternative review here)