>art by The singapore repertory theatre

>reviewed by daniel teo

>date: 2 aug 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: dbs arts centre
>rating: ***

>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.


Andy Warhol proclaimed Art simply as "what you can get away with."

ART, the tour de force that won French playwright Yasmina Reza the 1998 Tony for Best Play and copious accolades worldwide, stretches Warhol's statement to longer philosophical proportions within an easy-to-follow story of three men and the painting that comes between them. How far can we stretch the definition of Art? Does a white painting with white strokes qualify as Art? Is Art just hot air and hauteur hogwash?

The premise of the play is suitably minimalistic: three close friends start bickering amongst themselves when nouveau riche dermatologist Serge buys a $50,000 painting in a bid for bourgeois art crowd respectability. While Serge talks about the painting's dynamism and sophistication, his friends, Marc and Yvan, are less impressed. Marc, the misanthrope feeling betrayed by his good friend's unthinking worship of what he calls "a piece of white shit," attacks Serge's decision savagely, threatening the very fabric of their friendship while caught-in-the-middle Yvan tries to smooth things over, bending over backwards for his two friends.

In a nutshell, that's it. That's all that happens throughout ART. Three friends, one painting and endless internecine arguments that simply lead nowhere. For the production to truly go somewhere then depends on Yasmina Reza's script and the actors' performance. At first glance, it seemed like a sure bet: award-winning playwright, three highly qualified actors, and a script revered for its depth and complexity. After all, Reza has been hailed as an astounding new comedic writer and reviewers have even gone as far as to compare her with Chekov. The cast, boasting of Asian American actors Donald Li and Philip Moon and local actor Remesh Panicker, impress with their long lists of acting experience in the theatre (Panicker) as well as in the television and movie industries (Li and Moon).

>>'Definitely the actors worked hard - don't even breathe during Panicker's splendid gush of a monologue about his impending doom of a wedding - but the lack of chemistry made it seem all like… well, hard work.'

But sadly, unlike the painting, ART never does make much of an impact other than one of a mediocre success. Sure, it was funny… but really not much funnier than many other less well-known productions. Definitely the actors worked hard - don't even breathe during Panicker's splendid gush of a monologue about his impending doom of a wedding - but the lack of chemistry made it seem all like… well, hard work. Granted there were moments of pure comic relief surfacing sporadically throughout but somehow mannerisms like Li's carefully adopted Scrooge McDuck tone and Panicker's meticulous milquetoast gait highlighted the precision in their craft but not much of the natural exuberance that we would expect from the hype. Director Tony Petito, when quizzed about the difference between this version and the first version directed by Ivan Heng in 1998, stated that this year's ART would be more of a comedy. I didn't see the first but this comedy seemed so painstakingly built up that the effort seemed to involve more mechanics than true inspiration.

Not to say that the actors didn't do their roles justice. Donald Li as the irascible Marc chewed up everybody in sight, including himself with his strident views and acerbic diatribe. Hissing profusely at anything with the slightest hint of pretension, Li came complete with the stressed-to-the-point-of-mental-fracture countenance and slithering (forked) tongue. Li wears the skin of a malcontent well, sometimes so well that he reverts to a caricature of the textbook villain taught in acting 101 classes (think MASTERS OF THE SEA). Philip Moon as "new style intellect" Serge was easier to take in with his naturalistic approach to his acting. As the straight foil, Moon doesn't try as hard as Li and Panicker and thus was much more believable in his bewilderment with his discombobulated friends. Remesh Panicker as Yvan had the lion share's of the laughs with his marital woes and his pathetic life in general. Panicker worked the stage feverishly, frantically projecting what a loser Yvan is with his manic speech patterns and timorous presence, an industrious actor no doubt. It was a delight watching his Yvan and his transformation was almost complete if not for the protuberantly intense concentration of the actor within.

Set Designer Philip Engleheart's stylish minimalist set complemented the changing glow of Lighting Designer Scott Pinkney's wonderfully emotive lighting schemes beautifully, the clockwork gloss of the combination dazzled, even if it was all slightly cold in my opinion. Strangely enough, it was Reza's tepid script that was the non-event of the evening - her lines hit high notes from time to time but mostly they just sailed along. What I couldn't quite get over was how flat her characters were - from Marc's single-minded ornery malaise to Yvan's stubbornly banausic concerns, her characters were functional mouthpieces for the omnipresent playwright. Thus when Donald Li verged towards cartoonist proportions, Reza's one-dimensional writing deserved as much credit as Li's propensity for hamming up his role.

Am I quibbling over various degrees of success? Perhaps. And it's to SRT's credit that their productions have attained a level of excellence that anything less than amazing seems lackluster. The production did throw up interesting questions: can you really see white strokes on white canvass? Is modern art really worth anything? Does Yoko Ono's caterwauling really count as music? (alright, alright, that was mine) We might never know but somehow I wished those involved in the production had more fun asking.