>bote: the beginning of the end by the necessary stage

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 1 may 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: the drama 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.


The Necessary Stage's BOTE: THE BEGINNING OF THE END was neither about anything nor was it about beginnings nor ends since ends and beginnings were eradicated and (narrative) linearity was discarded in favour of confounding repetition and reiteration. BOTE cannot be said to be about something for it tried to be everything yet nothing, was appealing yet repulsive, humorous yet sombre. There was song and dance, poetry and mime, food and plants, love and rape, "O anything of nothing first create."

Conceived and directed by Jeff Chen, BOTE was a ride on the currents of polar extremities. Sanity, insanity, the mundane and the bizarre, the conscious and unconscious, grief and ecstasy were explored in this two-hour test of sensibilities.

Like many of TNS's avant-garde, experimental productions, such as those from the [names changed to protect the innocent] series, BOTE made little sense if sense is conceived in Aristotelian terms of dramatic narrative. It was a "misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms" where meaning was discarded for form (or rather formlessness). Random and fragmented episodes characterised BOTE whose supposed discourse on life's mundane and fanatical aspects was explored through the repetition of movements, phrases, images and motifs. These circularisms and tautologies, reiterations and recurrences reinforced the futility of meaning-filled action and existence, just as our attempts at making sense of the entire production would prove futile. Nevertheless, despite this general lack of coherent sense, one came away from the play with a plethora of reactions and emotions brought about by the strong casting.

>>'… like its paradoxical title, one's response to the play can be said to be one of a "brawling love" and a "loving hate", interspersed with servings of confusion and incomprehension.'

Veteran stage actors, such as Nora Samosir, were joined by other familiar stage and screen performers such as Natalie Hennedige, Serena Ho and Rodney Oliveiro. They inhabited a variety of schizophrenic, out-of-joint characters with considerable credibility. Following the practice of device drama, the characters on stage were unrecognisable as they portrayed multiple roles in the attempt to present a 'collective consciousness', and a prototype of an every-modern-man, on the stage. The characters could also be considered as representations of the different faculties in the unexplored recesses of the psyche; problems of self-esteem, insecurity and ennui were unearthed and staged with a good measure of aesthetic irony.

To accentuate the anguish of existence in modernity, characters on stage periodically yelled out repeated angst-filled catch phrases. One character went berserk when her insecurities, in her relationship with her boyfriend, got aggravated by his lack of ownership of a handphone! These 'out-of-sanity' moments stood antithetical to the various sections dramatised in the realist mode: the 'beginning' of the play opened with the staging of a seemingly normal family (with the father-figure clearly absent) having breakfast on a seemingly normal day. The avant-garde modes and instances of hysteria were cleverly contrasted with the realist sets which certainly captured one's attention as they replicated picture-perfect portrayals of cosy homes like those extracted from an IKEA brochure.

Despite the seemingly 'serious' issues, such as family life, marriage, relationships, extra-marital affairs and retrenchment, the performance was ludicrously hilarious. One would have easily mistaken the actors as replicas from Warner Bros' 'Looney Tunes' torn from the silver screen and corporealised on the stage. Perhaps this is the merit of BOTE. The play, excusing its painful moments of incomprehensibility, treated serious social issues in a humorously ironic manner. However, these commentaries, and the presentation of modern life on stage, were effective only when one was able to penetrate the density of the senseless dialogues, monologues, action and inaction. The absurd, nevertheless, was counterpointed with moving moments of empathy. One character repeatedly hung an envelope on a clothesline and pushed it far away from herself. The others eventually questioned her actions on stage and this caused her to break down as it occasioned a most poignant moment: In a desperate attempt to find relief from emotional pain, she writes her hurt down and tries to send it far away.

Unlike many other avant-garde productions, BOTE's infusion of multimedia elements, specifically the use of video projection, was not extraneously over-indulgent or unwarranted. The 'inter-media' elements were tastefully incorporated to complement, extend and develop the dramatic action (i.e. the 'live' action on stage). The play began with running credits and a cast list was flashed onto the pale wooden walls of the living-room set, thereby introducing the filmic quality of the performance while suggesting the synonymity and complimentarity of both media forms. The most notable and effective uses of video projection were the moments where video merged and fused with dramatic action: Nearing the end of the play, projections of characters walking through doors were overlaid onto the real action (of these characters walking through the same doors) taking place on the stage. The rhythms created by the alternating live and recorded movements soon bewildered an audience mesmerised by this most ingenious technique. Although little sense could be made from this motif, apart from its seeming reinforcement of the ideas of endless beginnings and beginnings of ends, credit should be given to this innovative use of visual art.

Apart from the use of multimedia and visual art, the production attempted to realise an undoubtedly perverse notion of the Wagnerian 'gesamkuntswerk' or 'total theatre'. With no particular purpose or motivation, characters broke into song and dance (with tunes from 'The Sound of Music' reverberating through the auditorium). There was laughter; there were tears - and these were supplemented by a generous dosage of wails and screams.

All in all, like its paradoxical title, my response to the play can be said to be one of a "brawling love" and a "loving hate", interspersed with servings of confusion and incomprehension. The audience's delayed and clearly hesitant applause at the final curtain call is a testimony to the play's success in diffusing ends and beginnings. Though its ideas were novel, fresh and inventive, BOTE can be said to be a play "full of sound and fury, signifying … [I'm sure the quote can be easily completed]".