>peer pleasure by the necessary stage

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 8 mar 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: the drama centre
>rating: not rated

>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.


Part of the M1 Youth Connection initiative, PEER PLEASURE is the only theatre festival organised and presented for the young, by the young. Despite the common belief that such productions are amateurish, this year's double-bill, featuring original productions from Commonwealth Secondary and Anderson Secondary schools, demonstrated the ways in which theatre in Singapore is possibly "coming of age". The maturity of issues presented and the proficient staging witnessed in both performances were truly encouraging and laudable.

Centred around teenage issues such as identity (dis)placement, acceptance, achievement and suicide, both productions effectively dramatised the anxieties of growing up in modern, materialistic, achievement-oriented Singapore.

Commonwealth Secondary School's 'I'm Still Here' is an angst-ridden, high-energy ride about a pregnant teenage protagonist who is, uncannily, a male. Employing the style of device drama, 'I'm Still Here' illustrated the ways in which avant-garde theatre can be effective in communicating ideas without bordering on the pretentious or self-indulgent, as other local experimental performances often do. Though there was no linear narrative, the story was powerfully conveyed by the emotions it generated and the tensions it created.

One of the tenets of device drama is the exposure of theatrical artifice. The devices of theatrical construction are not concealed and their functioning avoids illusion or identification with the characters on stage. Marcus, the protagonist, was the entire ensemble of actors on the stage. The 'universality' of his condition - his search for identity, a longing for acceptance from his friends and family despite his pregnant condition; his sense of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide - was thus evoked. The ability to inhabit multiple roles and constantly switch from one to another was a challenge successfully undertaken by these talented teens. Stylised movements accentuated the ludicrousness of daily routines - the combing of one's hair, the undivided attention one gives to an examination of waistline and muscle-growth - and these actions carefully pried out some common teenage anxieties.

>>'Centred around teenage issues such as identity (dis)placement, acceptance, achievement and suicide, both productions effectively dramatised the anxieties of growing up in modern, materialistic, achievement-oriented Singapore.'

"I'm Still Here" took the audience on an intense and tension-filled exploration of the inner recesses of Marcus' consciousness and his outer dealings with his family and friends (who abandon him as a consequence of his freakish state) via an effective evocation of phantasmagoria achieved through the various syntheses of and confrontations between theatrical sign-texts. The generally dark (both literally and metaphorically) setting was inter-cut by intense flashes of light and jarring rock music to create distinct psychological moments of rage and angst. These moments stood in counterpoint to other moments of quiet lucidity such as the graceful movements of a dancer whose presence was both a symbolic and 'literal' manifestation of Marcus' pet bird.

The production further exemplified the ways in which modern theatre is a synthesis and a collage of different art forms. The performance, through the effective use of music (rage-filled tunes such as Linkin Park's "Crawling" contrasted with the ethereal sounds of Sarah McLachlan's "Angel"), lighting, costume, video images, dance and even the incorporation of a Greek-like chorus that sat among the audience and echoed the anxieties of the protagonist - all this successfully conveyed the story of a boy teetering on the edge between life and death. The mood radically shifted as resolution was achieved when Marcus finally regained his family's acceptance but only at the cost of losing his mother.

"I'm Still Here" is certainly a praiseworthy production that possessed much critical and dramatic depth despite some minor glitches (for example, the music was often abrupt in its entry and end and was oftentimes too loud).

Anderson Secondary School's "IM UR" was no less remarkable, though it employed a different mode of storytelling. Adhering to the conventions of realist theatre with a strong linear narrative, "IM UR" thematises the issue of success in success-driven Singapore. With a script developed by a student, Seri Dewi, the play focuses on protagonists Kheleev and Sara. Both are high achievers whose accomplishments conform to definitions of success dictated by our society: Kheleev is a top athlete and Sara is a school councillor and part of the cheerleading team. Both, however, conceal skeletons in their closets resulting from the pressures of being young and successful - Kheleev comes from a home whose only concern is achievement, while Sara is obsessive about staying thin and attractive.

Kheleev and Sara's wardrobes get exchanged literally, and along with them their skeletons, when a wish made by both causes them to switch bodies. This exchange was effectively communicated by the interplay of video images: Sara and Kheleev's portrait-images became swapped, and both awakened to find that their genders had changed.

Such a staging of gender confusion (and not merely gender cross-dressing, for there was hardly any in this production) is certain to incite laughter. This is perhaps the strength of Anderson Secondary School's production. "IM UR" explores the range of human emotions and uses a humorous impossibility to accentuate a serious issue about teenage identity. The gravity of issues such as anorexia, peer pressure, pressure from home, and the effects of failed marriages on children, are not compromised by the hilarious performances of Kheleev playing Sara and vice versa.

The cast members of this strong ensemble were extremely convincing in their portrayal of the various characters, and credit must be awarded to the two leads who undertook the extremely challenging task of playing cross-gendered roles. The strength of "IM UR" came from its ability to evoke a range of moods in the audience and its simple yet powerful and effectively communicated narrative.

One came away from both productions possessing a cornucopia of reactions and emotions. The very 'real' problems highlighted in both plays and their poignant endings certainly tugged at the heartstrings, while the professionalism shown in both productions, and the awareness created in the audience through the dramatisation of these problems lifted one's spirits with hope. Theatre, then, not only holds, as Shakespeare says, "a mirror up to nature" but can and will effect social change as well.