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Bitter Chocolate


Apsara Asia and World-in-Theatre


Kenneth Kwok






Guinness Theatre, The Substation



Bittersweet Symphony

Although a regular at World-in-Theatre productions, I felt that the company's last performance, Two Women for One Ghost and La Musica, was rather lifeless and dull. It was arguably a bold attempt to try something more naturalistic and minimalist but the company's strength, to me, had always been the way it brought spectacle to the stage such that it invigorated the senses and captivated the imagination (The Gospel According To Mark, The Royal Hunt of the Sun). In Bitter Chocolate, another low-key and intimate production about ordinary people and their everyday lives, magnetic performances by World-in-Theatre founder Sonny Lim and dancers Kavitha Krishnan, Huang Yuzhu and Shanti Gomes riveted me but, unfortunately, these did not entirely compensate for the many pieces that made up the show which still left me cold.

I liked the way elements of different art forms were infused into this anthology of work, most of which explored the richness of life and how it could be both bitter and sweet, sometimes at the same time. The seven pieces (produced in collaboration with Apsara Asia, a relatively young performing arts company focusing on cultural dance) were mostly dance performances or dramatic monologues but light touches of poetry, live music, visual art and multimedia were also used to colour the works. Against the backdrop of a bare set, there was creative use of space and lighting. In one striking scene in Urban Requiem, dancer Juraimy Abu Bakar was lying on the floor struggling against the boundaries of the square of light within which he was framed. At the same time, this image was projected live onto the backdrop. His private plight of feeling trapped by modern life was essentially now being displayed as entertainment for the whole world to see.

Through the use of such powerful theatricality, each piece certainly opened with promise. There was always something slightly different or stirring to the senses. But this promise, sadly, was often not lived up to. If Bitter Chocolate were to be seen as an exploratory work-in-progress or simply a showcase of performance skills, it was interesting enough but I felt that the pieces did not come together well and many of them needed much more thought in the presentation of what were otherwise solid conceptual ideas.

Magic Shoes deals with a young man in the prime of his life who is paralysed in a hospital bed but, in his mind, is free to travel the world of his imagination. There is a twist at the end to imply that the young man is also mentally disturbed and that the innocent and sweet tales of adventures that he has been acting out both in his mind and for us may have been even more of a dream than we had thought - it may have been our own sentimentalisation. The concept is solid and much could have been mined from it but writer/performer (and ex-Inkpotter) Musa Fazal and director Ferlin Jayatissa only skimmed the surface. The stories he told, for example, which were supposed to be great flights of the imagination never quite soared as high as I would have liked, coming across merely as quaint and, more severely, lacking any solid punchlines. I also felt that the actor and director had over-simplified the piece, working only on the bare bones to create a caricature rather than fully delving into the character to explore what it really meant to be both free and trapped at the same time in this particular way. I did like Musa Fazal's performance though. It was incredibly over-the-top, all flailing arms and bulging eyes, but I personally felt that worked well for the character and proved to be a powerful contrast subsequently when he was seen at the end in a mental hospital with a glazed look on his face, unable even to speak or feed himself. His zealous performance as he recounted fantastical adventures may have turned off some and certainly made me feel uncomfortable at times because it was so in my face but I felt that the risk that paid off.

Strong performances in Vow were similarly let down by the script. The piece started off well with a nicely choreographed dance piece by Sonny Lim and Huang Yuzhu and was held together by a thoughtful and nuanced performance from Sonny Lim as a wheelchair-bound man who eventually reveals that he had murdered the woman he loved. As the entire text was delivered as a voice-over and Lim was confined to a wheelchair, he was able to concentrate entirely on his facial expression and this he did to marvellous effect. You could literally see the wheels turning in his mind as he recounted his story. A glance here, a slight smile there - these revealed his true emotions and thoughts in a subtle yet powerful way. The script itself, however, was functional at best and clichéd at worst. It meandered without impact or direction and did not fully flesh out the character or his circumstances. Having said this, this script was still more successful than that of the third of the dramatic pieces, the flat and really rather pointless The Lost Cradle, scenes of which were interwoven between some of the other six pieces. Actors Elizabeth Tan and Philip Marcelo attempted in vain to bring to life the story of a man at the grave of his mother who had abandoned him as a child. There was hardly any emotional energy in the script for them to work with and whatever little there was was dissipated when spread over so many smaller segments anyway. Marcelo in particular seemed disengaged from his character, playing things very quietly, and while that might have been a conscious choice by the actor and director, it made him come across as bland and uninteresting.

I've been focusing a lot on the dramatic pieces because that is the area I am more familiar with as a theatre (and not dance) reviewer; but it was, in fact, two of the four dance pieces that I felt were the most entertaining of the entire evening. Echoed Words was about a woman (Huang Yuzhu) with a speech impairment who playfully "converses" with an Indian classical dancer (Kavitha Krishnan) who, like her, also communicates with her hands. The movements were intricate and graceful but, more importantly, infused with so much humanity, beauty and dignity. The charismatic dancers were so clearly in the moment that their faces practically beamed with the light of sheer joy throughout the performance, and I literally could not tear my eyes off either dancer, despite the simplicity of the work.

The sombre Darkened Paths, meanwhile, was a more conventional dance piece, drawing mostly from what I would guess are ballet influences, but, again, it was the strong performance of one of the dancers, in this case, Shanti Gomes, which essentially won me over. Her character was a woman, who, like her husband, was trapped in a relationship that she could not see her way out of. This was illustrated in Gomes and partner Max Chen's tight, angular movements which were fraught with metaphorical stress and conflict - but it was the fixed look on Gomes' face, so numb and desperately full of sadness and loss, that really spoke volumes. The pair occasionally bumped into each other unintentionally and, strangely enough, I felt that this also added to the performance rather than detracting from it because of the humanity it gave to the piece.

The other two dance pieces I found less to my liking even if they showed as much heart and skill as the rest. Stranger to Stranger was an angry and, worse, repetitive, rant by Max Chen and an agile Khairul Shahrin while the angsty Urban Requiem had its moments of visual impact (especially when Juraimy Abu Bakar's muscular performance was complemented by an additional trio of dancers with lighter moves) but, in the end, was not particularly memorable and did not have anything particularly interesting to say about the theme of modern life either. This was not helped by the fact that the poem by Cyril Wong on which the piece was based was muffled over the speakers such that you could not really make out the words.

In this and its most recent work, World-in-Theatre seems to be trying to take stories about the mundane and ordinary and inject the extraordinary (or theatrical) into them. However, I feel the the company's strength is the reverse: taking the extraordinary - heightened emotion and theatrics, myth and legend - and making it human and accessible to an ordinary audience. Whether a company should stick to its strengths or keep trying to explore new territory remains, of course, endlessly debatable and when it comes to art, "should" is an especially slippery concept. Nonetheless I remain concerned that World-in-Theatre is losing its distinctive quality as I would not have been able to tell from the production alone that Bitter Chocolate was being presented by World-in-Theatre. However, I will certainly continue to support World-in-Theatre as an audience member because I feel there were indeed moments of great success in Bitter Chocolate and that this production represents an upswing after Two Women for One Ghost and La Musica.

"It was interesting enough but I felt that the pieces did not come together well and many of them needed much more thought in the presentation of what were otherwise solid conceptual ideas"


Producer: Kavitha Krishnan

Directors: Kavitha Krishnan and Juraimy Abu Bakar

Production Manager: Imran Manaff

Movement Choreographers and Directors: Juraimy Abu Bakar and Kavitha Krishnan

Theatre Facilitators: Sonny Lim, Juraimy Abu Bakar and Ferlin Jayatissa

Script/Text: Musa Fazal, Cyril Wong and Sonny Lim

Poems/Phrases: Cyril Wong and Ferlin Jayatissa

Music Composer: Ng Tian Hui

Lighting Designer: Iskander Abori

Multi-Media and Graphic Designer: Chris Cheers

Sound Designer and Music Editor: Imran Manaff

Musicians: Sam Anbarasan Eva, Lin Chun-Yi, Lee Hou Koon, Lee Cher Farn, Tow Huifen, Juraimy Abu Bakar and Ryan Esguerra Lim Lee

Cast: Ferlin Jayatissa, Huang Yuzhu, Juraimy Abu Bakar, Kavitha Krishnan, Khairul Shahrin, Max Chen, Musa Fazal, Philip Marcelo, Shanti Gomes, Elizabeth Tan and Sonny Lim

More Reviews of Productions by World-in-Theatre

More Reviews by Kenneth Kwok

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.