>II by Peel Arts

>reviewed by seow yien lein

>date: 15 mar 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the substation
>rating: see below

>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.

Rating: * *

OBELISK belongs to the school of theatre that believes in showing things as they really are. And "things", in this case, is the life of the artist as young man shown in a series of short scenes excerpted from different stages of his life - the artist at ten, learning to draw, the artist choosing which JC course to take (the arts or science?) the artist with his love. Altogether, the snapshots chronicle the shifts in his relationships to his mother, his best "brudder"' and his girlfriend. They also depict how the essential weakness of his nature causes him to sell out to popular standards of art and to pragmatism.

The play starts off rather cleverly with a brief spotlight on the artist and the line "Now that you know I die at the end, let's get on with the rest of it." But apart from such brief and occasionally misplaced stabs at meta-theatre, OBELISK was for all intents and purposes Reality Drama. And, like a lot of art that attempts to ape life in all its glorious mundanity, OBELISK ended up a victim of its own cleverness: the actors came to act out mere cliches of everyday life (the widowed and possessive mother, the misunderstood artist, the disloyal childhood friend) and when Ben, as our hero is called, turned in one scene to ask his mother "What was my father like?", you knew you were in the trite and mawkish territory of TCS 5 dramas.

When the artist rises up from the dead at the end of the hour, therefore, to announce the end of his life and challenges the audience with the words "Are you disappointed? Were you expecting high drama?...the real tragedy is that there are no towering passions, gunshots, blood in the streets," one is sorely tempted to answer in the affirmative: yes, we were rather hoping for more, not because towering passions and gunshots necessarily make for good theatre, but because your version of reality - and mundanity is as much a version of reality as gunshots and blood in the streets are - is uninteresting and devoid of dramatic value - which in this case you have priced at $8 ($16 per ticket, it's a double bill.)

>>'Both the conception and direction of the play were excellent'

Rating: ****

For THE PARK THAT DAY, however, one would gladly fork out the requisite eight dollars or even the full sixteen - brilliantly absurd with just the right touches of the bizarre, this playlet by Pua En (or the icEmaN as he'd like to be known) is a true gem of Singapore theatre.

Like its partner play, THE PARK is ostensibly about ordinary Singaporeans - a park caretaker who regularly remembers his wife, dead for 22 years now, the yuppie manager about to propose to his girlfriend, and the NUS student armed with camera and shoulder bag for her term paper's research. They meet by chance in a park, and start nattering inconsequentially on about their lives - the yuppie's imminent proposal, the dismal future of parks and park managers in view of the nation's penchant for upgrading and urban redevelopment, and the behaviour of youths nowadays.

Weaving in and out of such scenes of normality, however, is the park caretaker's wife - a wonderfully unethereal Melissa Wong - who though deceased, is very much alive in the thoughts of her husband. The funniest bits of the play come at the points where, in the midst of chatting normally to the young 'uns, the caretaker suddenly remembers a word or phrase of his wife's - this precipitates a fugue state in the caretaker, much to the confusion of his current company, and the play suddenly launches into an alternate reality, complete with techno music and blue lighting. The park caretaker here carries out past conversations with parking machines and bureaucrats whose metallic/human voices emerge from disembodied mouths (NUS girl and yuppie manager in reality) behind a park trellis dotted with creepers, party hats and eye masks.

Although the play rather prided itself on being the first to talk about the advent of a Speaker's Corner in Singapore, one felt the importance of speaking out didn't really come through - possibly because the pragmatic concerns of the other two (living) characters, funny as they were, diffused it somewhat. Minor glitches in the delivery of lines also surfaced occasionally and the acting tended to be rather rough around the edges at certain points.

But I cavil. The set design, which in this case was quite crucial to the whole effect of the play, was excellent - paper planes were launched from behind the trellis during the fugue state scenes, and the party hats and masks were brilliantly metonymic of the circus act our government plays out from time to time. Both the conception and direction of the play were excellent and touches such as the caretaker lighting his cigarette with his wife's altar candle, as well as the latter happily munching on one of the paus offered her, were in their own way, profound comments on life, death, reality and the imagination. Lee Yew Moon, too, shone as the disoriented and testy caretaker with the tenuous grip on real life.

So THE PARK THAT DAY, like OBELISK, is about ordinary people and ordinary events. Unlike its partner, however, it manages to prove that ordinary people and ordinary events - park caretakers, marriage proposals - can be hilarious, interesting and truth-telling all at once.