>proof by action theatre

>reviewed by daniel teo

>date: 22 nov 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: the jubilee hall, raffles hotel
>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 indefinable 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.


Janice Koh eating soap. That's the image that stuck. That was my first glimpse of her in last year's 'The Spirits Play' - fiercely determined Janice scrubbing furiously and suddenly devouring her bar of soap with such volition you actually worried for the soap. Fearless (admittedly, along with insane) was the word that came to mind.

When Koh stumbled onstage in a dangerously unglamorous baggy jeans and sweatshirt ensemble in PROOF, the word reverberated in my mind. It wasn't so much that she was wearing such awful clothes that struck me - after all she was in Chicago and her dad had just died. It was something in her stride. It was her physical baggage of a slouch and a melancholic demeanour that was purposeful, bewildered and yet at the same time unapologetically brave. (I didn't see her death-defying act in 'The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral' in 1998 but I'm sensing a pattern here.)

But here, Koh is playing a vastly different character from the previous two productions mentioned. PROOF is, of course, the biggest Broadway import this year after its success in New York, leading to a two-and-a-half-year (and still counting) run, four celebrity actresses' collaborations and one playwright (David Auburn) made very famous. With both the Tony Award and a Pulitzer under its belt, PROOF will hit the big screen next with Gywneth Paltrow up for the lead role.

Primarily a study of relationships against the backdrop of mathematics academia, PROOF explores the precarious bond between parent and child. It's about how, when you least expect it, you inherit the traits you both detest and admire in your parents. In the case of Catherine, she inherits her dad's gift for numbers as well as, she suspects, his propensity for madness. Collapsing under the twin pressures of burying her long-dependent father and meeting someone new, Catherine must find her own life - with little help from officious New Yorker sister Claire.

With Catherine, Koh has found a tight-fitting character that she wears all too snugly. She plays up Catherine's fiery strengths masterfully, enduing with finesse Catherine's armour of emotional tenacity and intellectual fire. She's ready to go on a warpath if someone so much as touches her magazines. Her sequences with sister Claire (Nora Samosir) are the more delightful moments precisely because of the alacrity with which the sisters' mood metamorphosed from vivacious to venomous.

>>'it's easy to see why actresses fight to play Catherine. And to a large extent, Koh played her beautifully'

Androgynously waifish and sporting a boyish cropped haircut, Koh's is a diminutive figure compared to everybody else in the room. Even with snappy comebacks delivered with feisty panache she looked like a child - but really, her Catherine is on the cusp of being her own woman. When her giant-by-comparison father held her in an embrace, you noticed that it was Catherine's grasp that propped him up rather than the other way around. Koh utilised all this to good effect, wearing her awkwardness in a little black dress like a badge, tugging and pulling it at the sides, looking all so vulnerable.

Other than Koh, it was playwright Auburn's elegant writing that worked. Befitting his mathematical metaphor for human relationships, his writing was executed with such preciseness that the cast moved deftly with his waltz. Wonderful linguistic touches abounded (Catherine's repartees with Claire and love interest Hal particularly amused), and thankfully his cleverness seldom eclipsed audience engagement, with catchy devices like verbal double takes and cliff-hangers used for story development. There was little of the lugubrious philosophising I had expected. What really impressed was his astute understanding of the female psyche, creating compelling characters such as Catherine and Claire without resorting to sloppy pop psychology.

Other cast members held themselves well against Koh with Nora Samosir and Remesh Panicker stealing some moments away from her. Samosir as dominating Claire handled herself with a calculated mix of brassiness and motherly nurture. Carrying left-over gestures from the 'Ah Girl' set, she was an intriguing mix of ah lian mannerisms, rebonded Fann Wong bowl hair cut and crisp English teacher diction. Strangely enough, it worked - you got the feeling Claire's one-sequinned-dress-short-of-Shirley-Bassey act was really no more than that, a performance. She might talk and act like a lounge singer but she really just wants to be a big sister. Samosir is particularly good with the physical - her scrunched up face and the human punctuation mark she made using a bended knee and an upright upper body posture spoke of rich stage experience.

Panicker as the father might have seemed like an odd choice to be paired with Koh - he's considerably bigger and they're of different races - but the chemistry between the two was touchingly tender, and especially poignant in the later stages when he descended into the abyss of madness. Sadly, the weakest link in the equation was the romance between Catherine and Hal (Mark Richmond). Unlike the easy chemistry Koh had with both Samosir and Panicker, theirs was flat and laboured. Richmond was fine when the moment called for him to be laddish but faltered when the script called for anything more. Compared to the skilled moves of his partners, Richmond's air-punching schoolboy antics seemed awfully one-dimensional and uninspired.

With such a strong cast, more faith could have been placed in the production rather than loading up on Alanis, Jewel and company during transitions. Maybe Director Krishen Jit was aiming for an overall crowd-pleasing effect with the pop tunes and broad comic touches but some of the music choices were weird to begin with (Train and Coldplay are not top-of-my-head segue music) and others were decidedly cheesy. I couldn't resist a snicker when R&B music came on as Koh and Richmond got it on.

Similarly, Catherine could have been based on more than primarily anger. [Spoiler coming up; if you don't want to see it, come back at the next paragraph - ML] When she revealed the shocker of being the author of a stunning new mathematical theory at the end of Act I, what was in question was not her sanity but the extent of her closet genius. After all, she looked much too lucid to be dressed as badly as she was, much less to be insane. When Claire questioned Catherine's erratic behaviour, it was Claire who ended up looking completely paranoid and we never questioned Catherine, despite her "I see dead people" moments. A production which spent more effort on exploring the possibility of Catherine's madness would have extended PROOF's concern to more than just Catherine and her problems.

But it's easy to see why actresses fight to play Catherine. And to a large extent, Koh played her beautifully. She shone with intensity, indignantly regal even in her dirty Gap sweatshirts which formed a shell for her nasty attitude. If the production is PROOF of anything, it is this: be it in sweatshirts or a gawky evening dress, Janice Koh commands attention.