>fruitplays by action theatre

>reviewed by kenneth kwok

>date: 13 jun 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: 42 waterloo, the room upstairs
>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.


As with Action Theatre's recent big success, 'Autumn Tomyam', the distinctly more low-key FRUIT PLAYS is a wholly solid production with much to recommend but which ultimately does not exactly go for your jugular, get under your skin and rip your heart out. Which is a bit of a wasted opportunity considering the dark themes explored in these two one-woman, half-hour monologues by Stella Kon ('Emily Of Emerald Hill') and Jean Tay ('Hopper's Women', 'Plunge').

First-time director but long-time theatre practitioner Low Kee Hong eschews the naturalistic approach that both scripts seem to have originally leant towards, and goes instead for something distinctly more avant-garde. Can you imagine Emily of Emerald Hill delivering her opening lines standing on a toilet bowl with her head in another one that is hanging down from her ceiling? In terms of direction, soundscape and set design, Low and designer Thoranisorn Pitikul consistently opt for choices that are self-consciously arty and possibly alienating in their abstractness. This distances the audience from Jenny, the long-suffering wife in Kon's 'Human Heart Fruit' because it makes it hard to access her as a realistic character in a realistic setting and situation; admittedly it also means that we avoid the melodrama and sentimentality that would have come with a straight reading. (And it's all done very imaginatively and cleverly, especially Mohd Helmi Fita's light design, so basically it's all very nice to look at anyway, la). Instead, Low's approach keeps the focus squarely on the turns of the narrative itself, which, for me, is the heart of the script rather than the actual character.

Indeed, Jenny lacks the allure of Kon's other more famous creation; Jenny's voice is much less distinct and flavourful. But even beyond Emerald Hill, Kon can deliver a solid story, well crafted and structured, and which unravels beautifully, layer upon layer, secret upon secret till we reach the horrific end.

>>'FRUIT PLAYS is a wholly solid production with much to recommend but which ultimately does not exactly go for your jugular, get under your skin and rip your heart out.'

Tay's script, 'The Swallowed Seed', is startlingly similar in many ways to Kon's. Interesting, says Low, seeing as how the two plays were written completely separately and supposed to link only in terms of being monologues and having a local fruit as its central motif*. Both are about women in abusive situations and how they deal with them. Both also play with idea of secrets and lies; Kon, using the image of layers to explore this (a chiku! Gasp!), and Tay, the idea of the seed as the hidden core of the fruit (a rambutan! Double gasp!). Where I do disagree with Low in his Director's Note, though, is his statement about the feminist nature of the plays; yes, these are plays with women as central characters, but that alone does not make a play feminist, certainly not in a political sense. To me, these are plays simply about ordinary people in extraordinary situations and as I have said, for me, what came across most strongly were not, indeed, the themes or even the characters but simply the stories themselves.

Tay's script, while less confident and tight than Kon's, is still an engaging piece that rocks you gently with its flashes of warmth, poignancy and humour in telling its tale of its protagonist, Sheryl, through three stages of her life. However, in short story tradition, it's all about the ending and, unfortunately, 'The Swallowed Seed' plays its hand too soon. The "Big Revelation" is telegraphed much too early and the audience is left spending the next half hour just waiting for the sting in the tail, which, when it does come, doesn't really have much sting left in it anyway because of its inevitability. Also, while Sheryl is wonderfully comic and colourful as a child, in the second and third segments, as a woman in her 20s and then an older woman living alone, she is much less interesting and slips occasionally into cliche. Considering how well-written the first segment is, the story might have been better served if it were delivered entirely from the point of view of the child as Tay appears to have a firmer grasp of that character. True, some aspects of the play would be lost without an appearance by Sheryl's older counterparts but there would also be much to gain, I suspect.

In the end, one of the great strengths of the production, was the inimitable Nora Samosir who delivered both monologues. Some may find her theatrical style of performance alienating and even grating, but it not only works here in Low's landscape, it also - and more importantly - gives her a powerful presence on stage and adds much texture and colour to the proceedings. She is a masterful storyteller and your attention is on her for the entire hour.

You know what I am getting at, right? Kon, when will we see Samosir as Emily?

*I know this is becoming an ACTION Theatre tradition after the paintings and pillows of 'Hopper's Women' and '1 Bed 3 Pillows' respectively, and it is a cute marketing gimmick but really, a gimmick is still a gimmick and already the joke is wearing thin, especially when, as in FRUIT PLAYS, it becomes so contrived that the integrity of an otherwise-solid production is compromised.