>comrade mayor by theatreworks

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 7 sep 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: black box, fort canning
>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.


Playing with the idea of gender when casting can open up all sorts of interesting possibilities and lead to some fresh insights to a text. Last year's masterful 'William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet' by the Singapore Repertory Theatre springs to mind, although admittedly, even then, the idea was already starting to become predictable in its explorations what with the umpteen stage productions with a woman playing a male role or an all-male cast taking on musicals like 'Swan Lake' and 'Carmen'. And now we have COMRADE MAYOR: A MODERN POLITICAL FAIRY TALE in which eight men present the tale of a Singapore ambassador who travels to an unnamed Asian city and grapples with the political and sexual games of its corrupt and libidinous Mayor. The ambassador is a woman. The Mayor has a wife. The ambassador's brother has a female lover. All the roles are played by the eight men of this hip, young cast including Rodney Oliveiro, Brendon Marc Fernandez and Harris Zaidi whom you might remember as much for their previous stage work as their appearances on 'Arts Is Cool' ads, Cleo Eligible Bachelor lists and the TV series 'Spin' and 'Money'.

You watch the play, the whole time thinking that there will be some pay-off. That there will be a reason for this, no matter how trite or predictable. What makes COMRADE MAYOR so anti-climatic is that there is no reason. Sure, it works on an aesthetic level, it works as a good marketing gimmick - stop listening to the Anastasia CD, get out of that Blood Brothers boutique and come on down to COMRADE MAYOR because almost all the strapping, young bucks, at one point or another, gasp, take off their Hugo Boss suits and strip down to skin-tight shorty shorts! - but that's about it. It generated a few laughs and some would find the resultant homoeroticism sexy in places but I wouldn't bother giving Germaine Greer a call.

>>'... everyone involved should have probably spent less time choosing their Hugo Boss suits and working out in the gym and much more on the direction and the script.'

In the programme, playwright Russell Heng says that it was an all-male cast because the story is a piece of fantasy and "I figure the best way not to get too real is to let seven [eight] guys play the 20 odd characters". So the point of the all-male cast was just so we wouldn't think this was real life? Riiiight. Casting gerbils in the roles would have achieved the same effect.

Of course there's nothing wrong in just having a bit of crazysexycool fun; as director Tan Boon Hui, puts it, theatre today has to be entertaining. He then follows this, though, by saying that theatre, however, should "never be entertainment" either. Heng also emphasizes in his playwright's message the importance of the "weighty political issues" and heck, the subtitle of the play is "a modern political fairy tale". However, since the all-male cast in itself is not meant to provoke us into asking the million-dollar questions, then the thrust of the political theory and argument must presumably come from the script. It is there that we will be challenged and provoked, right? Unfortunately, this does not turn out to be the case either. It is not that the script does not explore serious political issues, it does, but rather it offers no new insights nor does it present its arguments with any real bite or sustained attention. The alienating effect of having the all-male cast take on all the roles doesn't help either when trying to access the themes of the script. Which means you're left with a case of not being quite sure what the play is all about or trying to be.

Both the script and the direction, to be fair, were spot-on at times. There were moments of pure unadulterated genius on the part of both Heng and Tan but sadly, these were few and far between. I liked the staging of the scene in the cave - set designer Gino Gonzales impressing again after his fine work in TheatreWork's 'Machine' - with the imaginative use of the trap door; the court officials with zimmer-frames and some of the in-jokes ("Temple of the Golden Spring") were also inspired. Elsewhere, however, both were clumsy; the direction, particularly of the ensemble, resorting to the sort of movement work and tableaux of student theatre clichés and the script in the first half, exposition-heavy and lacking in any real characters that you'd care about. Things did get better in the shorter second half, as the play cast off all pretentions and just concentrated on tying up loose ends and being really quite outrageous and funny but it is a bit tragic that the best part of the play is simply that its second half manages to redeem its first.

In terms of the cast, the ensemble turned in a mediocre performance and Harris Zaidi as the titular lothario Mayor was very hit-and-miss; still he has a nice energy on stage as a performer that still keeps you more or less with him through it all. Brendon Marc Fernandez proved dependable as always (if also always a little same-y) while Rodney Oliveiro is noticeably growing as an actor and producing even stronger and more confident work with each performance but for me, it was Gani Abdul Karim who stood out, red feather boa notwithstanding. His performance as a female nymphomaniac journalist / spy was a riot, primarily because he avoided overplaying the already OTT part and just let the inherent humour of his role shine through; he came across not so much as a man playing a drag queen than as a man playing a woman playing a drag queen.

And so it was. COMRADE MAYOR wasn't particularly political, at least, not in any way that was really thought-provoking or insightful. And as a fairy tale it did have occasional sparkle and magic, possessing a zany quality that was good for a few laughs but really, everyone involved should have probably spent less time choosing their Hugo Boss suits and working out in the gym and much more on the direction and the script.