>ang tau mui by w!ld rice

>reviewed by jeremy samuel

>date:19 jul 2002
>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.


Or, the secret life of toilet aunties. This play follows toilet cleaner Ang Tau Mui ('red bean girl', a nickname from her previous job at a dessert stall) on the last day of her life, showing through flashbacks the choices and circumstances which landed her in her current embattled position. We also see in parallel the career of Hong Kong movie queen Lin Dai, with whom Ang Tau Mui is obsessed.

From her first appearance as a pouty 12-year-old to her final days, ATM remains resilient and determined to see the bright side. She is a figure of the downtrodden everywoman, the luckless working class girl soldiering on with a smile on her face and a dream in her heart. She mythologises her own life, rose-tinting it -- at one point, when she is reduced to turning tricks in an amusement park, she imagines that the seedy businessmen she picks up "are kings in disguise."

Solo performer Selena Tan displays an amazing amount of energy, constantly running around the stage, energetically describing all she sees and remembers. Her childish glee at life is balanced by a video screen in a
corner of the stage, showing ATM at her counter outside the public loos, staring into space almost motionless, periodically blinking. Her obvious boredom is a sobering counterpoint to the frenzied activity on stage.

Tan has a fine comic ability and her ATM persona is a highly-watchable creation, bursting with small cunning survival strategies and a dauntless optimism. She is less successful in portraying the other characters in the
narrative, whom she also plays - an Israeli/Swiss smuggler (with, oddly, an American accent) is nowhere near as sleazy as he needs to be, while a security guard comes equipped with a way-off-the-mark Malay accent and
unconvincing swagger. Tan is not so much an actress as a comedienne, and while she is funny in these other roles, she never fully inhabits them.

>>'...as with all W!ld Rice productions, set, music and staging
form a seamless whole.'

Leow Puay Tin's script is a kind of dream play, where we are given the bare circumstances of Ang Tau Mui's life - marriage at 16, various jobs, her pride in having the cleanest toilets in town - filtered through the fantasies and memories that get her through the day. "I saw my life passing like a dream," she tells an old nun during a 'Climb Every Mountain'-type epiphany ("Wake up, Ang Tau Mui. This is how it is. This is how it has always been"). As always, director Ivan Heng embellishes the story with strong visual effects, making good use of both the video screens and Tan's striking physicality.

The pokey upstairs space at 42 Waterloo Street provides a suitably intimate space for this confessional monologue. As with all W!ld Rice productions, set, music and staging form a seamless whole, with Casey Lim's videography providing a well-integrated backdrop to the action, particularly in a scene where ATM dances with a backwall projection of Lin Dai. Jason Ang provides live accompaniment on the erhu to comic effect, at points satirising the melodramatic chords of 50s tearjerkers or, whilst ATM is dashing around a shopping centre in a frenzy of consumerism, launching into 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring'. Even the programme, with its Magnum-like photos of Selena Tan's auntie routine, is obviously part of a well-thought-out production design.

This production intelligently probes the psyche of a toilet auntie, but fails to fully illuminate the disappointments and petty triumphs that constitute her life. Tan has a bittersweet comic presence, but simply lacks the gravitas to convey the desolation at the heart of ANG TAU MUI, the emptiness behind her daydreams and energetic cheerfulness - the same emptiness that caused Lin Dai to kill herself aged thirty, at the peak of her career. By the time Ang Tau Mui dies in her sleep (we aren't told why), we should feel like we have witnessed a rough-edged, heart-breaking play, but this production allows it so slip down as easily as a bowl of red bean soup.