>reviewed by seow yien lein

>date: 18 apr 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the room upstairs, 42 waterloo street
>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.


Thank goodness for angry young men. AN OCCASIONAL ORCHID, a play borne of the bitter and frustrating experiences of Ivan Heng and Chowee Leow in London, handsomely attests to the power of anger to create powerful art. A one-man play about the life of Joseph, a sexually uncertain Malaccan boy sent abroad by parents to study medicine, AN OCCASIONAL ORCHID is quite simply an hour and fifteen minutes of unmitigated pleasure, a treat for the mind as it is for the eyes.

Beginning with the voice-over of an Asian father's last injunctions to his son ("Boy, I send you to England you better study hard! Remember - you are Chinese; come back and marry a good Chinese girl. She'll listen, a good Chinese girl..."), the play moves fluidly through a series of scenes capturing various episodes in Joseph's life - both as Zoe, the persona he assumes in London, as well as the young Joey growing up in a troubled Straits Chinese household in Malacca. Chowee Leow carries the day as Zoe, the deeply insecure and sexually confused male transvestite looking for love in all the wrong places. Especially poignant is the scene in which he attempts to retain his Brit lover's interest by donning a pair of bunny-rabbit ears; his plaintive "Brian, am I not woman enough for you?" rings painfully in the hush of the theatre, giving the scene a sense of pathos and poignancy that informs the rest of the play.

>>'Descriptions can only go so far in conveying an experience that was entertaining, intellectually satisfying and emotionally affecting all at once'

Leow is also the first adult actor this reviewer has seen who can credibly pull off a child's role - the scene where young Joseph plays house with his Barbie and Ken is alone worth the price of the ticket. The amazing Mr Leow is also a dead ringer for a Brit bloke who tries to pick Zoe up at Madame JoJo's (a Boom Boom Room-type place, only grander), as well as for a fussy and unhappy Peranakan mother with a rebellious son in England and an estranged husband in Taiwan.

But Leow's controlled and nuanced acting would not have been as successful without excellent direction from Heng, his co-writer. Throughout the play, different pairs of shoes (designer shoes, black stilettos, homey Chinese slippers) encircling the stage were used such that they acted as a form of parallel commentary on the action: Zoe picks the "western" shoes up one by one while reading out various personals ("submissive oriental TVTS for no-strings fun"), and then in a brilliant ugly-step-sister scene, tries desperately to squeeze them on even when it becomes obvious none of them, like the descriptors in the London personals, fit.

For a play as replete with irony as AN OCCASIONAL ORCHID is, a lesser director would have been tempted to do too much. Heng's direction, however, is never heavy-handed with the symbolism, opting instead for the subtle approach - a far more satisfying method that requires the engagement of the audience's minds, making theatre a truly interactive experience. Scenes of individual events, and those not always in chronological order, are linked organically together, with words or phrases from one recalling those from another. The way Zoe's orchid-cultivation lesson at Kew echoes her mother's bonsai class is very clever indeed, along with the highly suggestive use of Barbie dolls for the two potted plants (a black-haired Barbie for the bonsai plant, blonde-haired Barbies for the orchids in London). A dark humour pervades, brought out by the heavily-symbolic action - in the bonsai scene, the Barbie is tied upside-down to the back of a chair and has her two feet bound by green tape (alongside a commentary telling us that a bonsai is a tamed tree with root and branches cut off to "redirect growth"); at the end, a sarong-ed Zoe looks down at her own two feet, only to see them shod in crampingly high black stilettos before the lights go down.

Little touches like these speak of a sophistication and thoroughness of thought rarely found in Singaporean theatre. This was true for the set employed in the production as well - upon entering the theatre, the audience was greeted by a stage backed by three impressive racks of beautiful shoes (these collapse one by one as Zoe dashes to them in turn, desperate to find assurance in her "Oriental bimbo" identity after Brian leaves). In the middle of the stage stood a rotating musical Barbie (a pose Zoe is to strike later on), and around the perimeter the aforementioned shoes on neat, individual plots of carpet grass. Mention must also be made of the care taken with the choice of music and the sound effects - not only did apposite music accompany the more emotional scenes, you could even hear the car door click when Zoe opened it upon the request of a traffic policeman.

It would be easy to go on describing the richness of thought and detail in the play. But descriptions can only go so far in conveying an experience that was entertaining, intellectually satisfying and emotionally affecting all at once - and this not simply because the reviewer, as many other members of the audience on Thursday, could identify with certain parts of the protagonist's story; as Heng once noted in private, people ranging from German hausfraus to local aunties have found in the situations and sentiments of AN OCCASIONAL ORCHID - a play written by two frustrated Asian male artistes about their experiences in London - a resonance in their own lives. And this, at the end of the day, is what theatre is all about.