>stray by stage pals

>reviewed by musa fazal

>date: 19 dec 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: the guinness theatre
>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.


STRAY tells the story of four twenty-something Singaporeans. Ray, an obsessive romantic who spasmodically breaks out into song, has taken advantage of the economic recession to quit his dead end job and try out all the things he never had a chance to do. Su, his fiancée, agrees to play along with his crazy schemes to show support. Ray and Su decide to form an activities club (how creative young Singaporeans have become!). They manage to get all of two people to join - Kim, the bra-stealing super-bitch with black eye shadow, and Leo, the Cheena nerd.

The rest of the play traces the adventures of this motley crew as they croon karaoke songs, cheat people into donating to a bogus charity for stray animals, and try out new sexual experiences in Happy Sunrise Hotel in Geylang. Intertwined with all of this are scenes played out by a chorus of nine actors doing largely satirical takes on local events.

One such chorus scene has an actor disinterestedly slapping fifty-dollar bills on street beggars and a "life support machine". Another amusing scene takes a well-deserved jibe at the Andrea D'Cruz saga, too often hailed as the ultimate act of Singaporean generosity, through a TV series, 'A Liver in Time'.

Sets and props are kept to a minimum. Only two boxes painted red with white stars clutter the stage, rather crudely reminding you in case you weren't aware that this play is an indictment of all things Singaporean. Far more subtle and interesting is the use of meta-text in this play. A doorway in the back of the stage is cut out revealing an old woman in a cubicle, pounding herbs with a mortar and pestle, folding clothes, smoothening out old newspapers, and feeding stray animals. The 4 leads never communicate with this old woman, and she never speaks, but her understated presence throughout is the play's most powerful and damning critique of the society we live in.

>>'For a play determined to lash out against the restrictions imposed by a paternalistic society, the criticisms this play makes are just too tedious, pedantic and old.'

In spite of all the establishment bashing, the system wins in the end. Ray disbands his hedonistic club and decides to settle down with Su. An effusive speaker throughout the play, he is silent towards the end, and leaves it to his steady fiancée Su to narrate the preparations for their wedding. Meanwhile Kim leaves for Canada and Leo goes to work for the government.

Several of the ideas in this play, especially in the chorus scenes, are interesting but badly executed. In several scenes the actors become animals, clocks, or machines ala Acting 101 workshops, but their physical movements are untidy and amateurish. Many of the chorus actors look constipated throughout the performance, and their ignominy is made complete by the torn pieces of clothing they are made to wear as costumes.

The 4 leads are a tad more polished. Chong Shu Ying and Zarelda Marie Goh who play Kim and Su respectively are quite good. Don Shiau who plays Ray thinks he can sing better than he really can, but is on the whole a competent actor playing an annoyingly sappy role. Co-director Aaron Tan plays Leo, and watching him act, one understands why the play has turned out looking the way it does.

Pacing could have been improved. Some scenes are a chore to get through, notably one scene where each of the 4 leads sings their favourite karaoke tune. I should mention that this play is peppered to the point of overkill with golden oldies, including numbers from John Lennon, and Madonna's early days. There are even some feeble attempts to infuse the text with lyrics, Baz Luhrmann style.

Emeric Lau, playwright and co-director of STRAY, mentions in the programme that he is troubled by the dearth of local writing in Singapore. STRAY is his attempt to fill this void. For me the tragedy in Lau's attempt lies in his narcissistic self-indulgence. None of his characters portray the diversity of young Singaporeans as the flyer proclaims. All of them portray Lau. Why else would the play start with Lau, have him sitting in the front row filming the performance throughout, and then end with him onstage gazing on his characters beatifically?

Perhaps STRAY is just a wandering of Lau's mind, a contemplation of alternatives, a deviant's exploration of possibilities. What makes straying with Lau so dissatisfying is that one gets the impression Lau hasn't strayed far enough for any meaningful new insights to be gleaned. For a play determined to lash out against the restrictions imposed by a paternalistic society, the criticisms this play makes are just too tedious, pedantic and old.