>sound and beauty by luna-id

>reviewed by musa fazal

>date: 16 apr 2004
>time: 8pm
>venue: dbs arts centre
>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.


SOUND & BEAUTY may have seemed like two plays, but it was really a single performance. Not so much two stories, as a single story in two halves.

In THE SOUND OF A VOICE, a Samurai journeys to a house in the woods determined to kill the wicked witch who lives there, only to find his steely resolve broken by a beautiful woman who cooks well, has a way with flowering shrubs, and plays music for him in the night to soothe his bad dreams. Of course there is more here than meets the eye. Has the attractive demoness turned the other young men who have come to see her into the flowers she keeps on her mantle? Or is she really just a lonely woman longing for some company and demonised by those who refuse to understand her?

SOUND keeps the audience in suspense the way any good ghost story does. And the Japanese in particular, have a way with ghost stories (think of 'Uzumaki', 'The Ring' and other bizarre, blood-curdling tales). Best of all, their stories have a wonderful Asian twang that make them resonate so much more than, say, a story about the dead rising up in New York city.

The character of the witch in SOUND exemplifies this. She has all the bitterness, pallor and bloody lips of a classic Pontianak. She has a bit of an edge over her Malay counterpart because she plays the Shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, does a mean sword fighting routine, and can turn men into bright red poinsettias. In an interview Hwang described his witch as being modelled on a Japanese demon called Yama-onna that pretends to be a submissive, beautiful maiden. Left alone, a mouth spreads open on the back of Yama-onna's neck... Lovely.

But SOUND is also a canvas for the playing out of a struggle between genders in a conservative Asian society. Hwang makes no attempt to hide this in his script. The character of the samurai is known only as "Man", while his adversary-cum-lover is known only as "Woman". The play begins with this gender divide clearly defined. Woman brings Man food, pours him tea, and imploringly begs him to eat claiming that his doing so will give her "great pleasure". But as the play progresses, these boundaries blur and nowhere more clearly than in the sword-fighting scenes, where Woman kicks ass and brings Man literally to his knees. Even here though, the characters seem determined to maintain their personas, fearing to step over societal boundaries. Woman apologises to Man having won the swordfight, describing her skills as "so inappropriate" - "I look like a man," she says.

SOUND is also, at its root, a story about love, and the destructive power of love. The samurai's emasculation in the play is made complete when he admits that he has lost the will to carry out the very task he had set out to do. "I came with a purpose," the samurai declares. "The world was clear... you changed the shape of your face."

>>'Both stories involved characters searching for love, yearning for companionship and unable find it through a means other than death'

THE HOUSE OF SLEEPING BEAUTIES is an adaptation of a short story by Yasunari Kawabata that has Kawabata himself as the protagonist. Kawabata visits a brothel where the men pay only to lie next to the naked bodies of sleeping women on the pretext of doing research for his story into the attraction of such places for older men. He is interrogated at entry by a spicy mamasan ("Madam") who screens all her guests carefully because as she declares, "If you scratch a man you will find a molester." It is only curiosity, he protests, that lures him to try a night with one of the sleeping damsels. He starts to come every night, and develops an addiction for Madam and the girls.

Like SOUND, BEAUTY involves a tussle between genders, but the wisdom and experience of the older characters infuse the writing, so that the insights drawn are more subtle and rewarding. Take the line - "Defiance in a man is a trained response; defiance in a woman is her own." Touché.

Unlike SOUND, BEAUTY also involves characters struggling with the physical deformity that comes with age, leaving in its place a wrinkled shell that masks an undying human lust for companionship. In a highly charged ending, Kawabata has Madam dress herself in front of him before they die in each other's arms, like a pair of teenage lovers, finally freed from the shackles of their ageing bodies.

The writing in both plays is characteristic of David Henry Hwang in that it tries to blend East and West in a "fusion aesthetic". SOUND in particular exemplifies this, by turning a traditional Japanese ghost story into a stage for gender activism. The problem with these plays is that they suffer from a slightly exoticised version of Asian-ness. Japanese women may be demure and self-effacing, but no self-respecting woman would, in response to a compliment from a man, spout lines like "my skin feels like seaweed" as Woman does in SOUND. BEAUTY fares better because the characters are more complex and believable.

Directing, stage design and lighting were executed with the usual finesse one has come to expect from a luna-id production. Having said that, Debra Stych, director of SOUND, could have papered over some of the awkward silences with music. Samantha Scott-Blackhall, director of BEAUTY, delivers, as usual.

The acting in both plays was also superb. However, Lim Kay Tong and Karen Tan deserve special mention. The way Madam shuffled across the stage, the way she spoke with her eyes averted, the way she poured tea, was mesmerising. But the full five stars an Inkpot reviewer can give must go to Lim Kay Tong. His Kawabata came closer to the word 'transcendent' than any other performance I have seen. Every movement, every gesture, every nuance of emotion was precise and palpable.

SOUND and BEAUTY had a lot in common, both in style and substance. Most noticeably perhaps, both involved a conflict between a man and a woman. More importantly, both stories involved characters searching for love, yearning for companionship and unable find it through a means other than death. This seemed to be the bitter message of these tales; a poison vial handed out, as it were, in two parts.