In Forbidden Kitty (one of the segments in Forbbiden Chestnuts), Jonathan Lim, replete in a garish Cheongsam and two Singapore flags stuck into his hair, crows mockingly, “We’ll sell out every night because Kit Chan gives you a thrill”. One could point out that Forbidden Chestnuts sells out every night because Jonathan Lim does give you a thrill; and that Chestnuts, like Forbidden City, also exploits a winning commercial formula that draws huge crowds every year and establishes a large following. But why bother? Lim would probably have simply wiggled his behind and blown a kiss typical Chestnuts style to such a riposte.
It is an indecent accomplishment that Chestnuts rips through many of last year’s theatre productions with unabashed glee, yet never falls into the ultimate trap of being the unwitting subject of its own parody. After all, in a production that spoofs other productions, irony abounds. But Chestnuts does not avoid this irony - it ensures that the joke is on them as much as it is on everyone else.
Everything about Chestnuts reeks of a good kind of shamelessness – in spoofing anything and everything, they are not afraid of taking potshots at themselves. It is this winning Chestnuts philosophy that is central to Portrait of A Brokeback Geisha, the latest Chestnuts edition that tears through the most tantalizing highlights of last year – both within and without theatre – with comic vengeance.
It is this no-holds-barred brand of Chestnuts humour that
dramatically lifts this production’s comic quotient. In Portrait’s
parody of Notre Dame, a campy Judy Ngo skips around the stage
fawning over Quasimodo’s hump (who Rodney Oliveiro plays to dim-witted
perfection) to the hip-hop beat of - you guessed it - The Black Eyed
Peas’ My Humps. Ordinarily, this would have invited cringes
aplenty, maybe even derision. However, you cannot help but laugh along
because, as a fellow theatregoer puts it, “It is so bad it actually
However, Portrait does mine enough gut-busting thrills to make you forgive its awful lapses. At its best, Portrait brandishes a sparkling comic inventiveness. In Portrait’s parody of Thunderstorm, a play closely linked to cult movie hit Curse of The Golden Flower, Judy Ngo magically captures the overblown Gong Li- like intensity of Cao Yu’s period drama and sends you into sidesplitting laughter. What follows is a stroke of comic ingénue: the scene brilliantly segues into a dead-on spoof of Stomp, and the cast erupts into a frenetic drumbeat using whatever they have on stage – chopsticks, wooden stools, and in Hossan Leong’s case, clogs (he plays a eunuch in the Thunderstorm parody – ‘nuff said). Thunderstorm to ThunderSTOMP, get it?
In keeping with Chestnuts tradition, Portrait also exploits the full comic potential of its legendary gags with equally funny sequels. In a spoof of The Matrix, Oliveiro and a devilishly deadpan Lim continue their epic battle over an ez-link card from where they left off in previous editions of Chestnuts, conjuring up some hilarious tongue-twisting dialogue. The inimitable Pondan Air also returns to stage, starring Leong and Lim as lascivious stewardesses engaging in lewd, crowd-pleasing antics, sending the audience into fits.
Stages took a risk when it initiated Oliveiro and Ngo into the Chestnuts fraternity: these additions to an already combustible cast of Leong and Lim could have amounted to overkill. Fortunately, they gelled into a riotous foursome, their comic timing marvelously in sync. More importantly, the gags suited the four-member cast effectively, not the other way round. It also gave each actor more time to prepare for the next gag without Portrait having to resort to too much flat filler material.
In this sprawling two-and-a-half-hour production, a lot more editing would help. At times, especially when jokes dragged on for far too long, its slapstick momentum was uneven, giving it the feel of a work-in-progress. Yet, one can hardly deny that, when Forbidden Chestnuts takes flight, it is a thoroughly perverse romp through the Singaporean psyche.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /