>lian can cook by drama box

>reviewed by adele tan

>date: 27 may 2001
>time: 7:30pm
>venue: toa payoh amphitheatre
>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.


Wearing a well-worn theme of domestic violence and abuse, centring on the long-suffering wife- protagonist like that of the usual tragic reportage we find in the media, LIAN CAN COOK confronts these issues theatrically and brings them into the HDB heartlands. The stock characters are there: the indefatigable wife, the abusive husband and the wastrel son. The narrative too falls into a rather predictable trajectory. The jobless husband vents his frustration by beating up the wife, the wife's female boss intervenes but whose help is rejected by the wife who lives in denial. The son gets into a fight with the father and kills him in an accident and the mother protects and shelters the son who is now on the run.

Yet though archetypally structured (necessarily so because of its ready accessibility to the public) it is the play's presentation of such recognisable elements which lifts it from triteness. Done in a mixture of Mandarin and dialects, the 35-minute monologue is consistently hilarious in its colourful patois but its humour is rendered almost always dark and self-deprecating. The play tells the story of a woman who tries to cook a sumptuous dinner for her family to celebrate her birthday but is inevitably disrupted by unforeseen events. Embroiled within different domestic fights, the woman finds herself the victim of male forces in the family and gets continually thrown out of the flat's window. Miraculously, she survives and revives time and again to finish her cooking but only to find out that there always isn't enough food. Detracting itself from the sob story genre, the fantastic and even caricaturist elements draw out a wider range meanings and symbolic experiences that move between the tenuous line of fact and fiction. The woman coming back from the dead speaks of unflagging duty and commitment, and the magic pork ("tua sian's char sio bak") which she obtains points to her reliance on supernatural faith when belief in reality and real solutions fail her. Ludicrous but sad is her belief that eating the magic pork will bless the husband with a job and therefore stop the beatings, or that consuming the pork will give her sacred protection. The comedy is unmistakably black, marked with disillusionment and cynicism, of ordinary folk caught up in an unrelentingly absurd fate pervaded with despair.

>>'For a community play, LIAN CAN COOK is simple and succinct'

For a community play, LIAN CAN COOK is simple and succinct but doesn't flinch from addressing the more distasteful underbelly of society. From the mother catching her 13 year-old son smoking and experimenting with a sexually "deviant" act to the macabre scene of her cutting off her own ears and nose to satisfy her family's own food preferences, the play brings to fore the grimmer sides of families which most community-based programmes do not display. The stage set-up too appears to be designed to move the audiences past conventional perceptions. The stage semiotics work themselves through an eclectic clash of props. The familiar paraphernalia of joss incense, altars and lotus lights jostle with disparate forms like a fishing rod suspending a food cover overhead, garish lime-green platforms, a tiger rug (hints of residual machismo) and toy babies (which are representative effigies of the son) crawling all over the stage.

Much of this play is lifted by the strong dramatic presence of the play's creator and central performer, Li Xie, who has proved her versatility, range and mettle in THE vaginaLOGUE. Although her delivery is sometimes contrived and playing to effect, Li Xie captures the audience's attention as she transits rather effortlessly between the comic and the poignant. As she slips totally under the food cover that is lowered upon her after her husband's murder, she becomes a powerful visual statement of the intense impenetrability of domestic entanglements whose private character gets a brief public reprieve on a dramatic stage, and on this rare occasion, brought so directly close to the people.