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Real Men, Fake Orgasms


ACTION Theatre


Matthew Lyon






The Room Upstairs, 42 Waterloo Street



Oh Man!

I can't say I saw any real men in ACTION Theatre's Real Men, Fake Orgasms, and, even more disappointingly, I didn't notice any fake orgasms either. Instead, I saw a series of vaguenesses - sometimes soft-focus, impressionistic vignettes and other times hard-edged, quick-draw caricatures. The evening as a whole was like a cross between a poem and a sketch show. Sadly, though, neither the poem nor the sketch show was very good.

The play's first scene fell into the former category. Two men in white underwear are alone on a blank stage. Mostly they talk, but sometimes they are silent; mostly they are still, but sometimes they jump around. There is a window high in one of the featureless walls, and this provides a screen for what is credited in the programme as Li Hong's multimedia design, but mainly it looks like they've just left a Windows screensaver on - the one called "Bliss" with the rolling green hills and blue sky.

The intention seemed to be to create an emotional no-man's land - a prison for two kindred souls unable quite to connect with one another - and thereby to invoke an aura of poetic regret tinged with an undercurrent of sanitised sexuality. But it was all a bit pretentious. I was reminded of an episode from the second season of the British sitcom, Extras, in which the protagonist, a frustrated comic actor on a lowbrow TV show, decides he can up his artistic credibility by appearing in a play. He ends up cast as a conflicted gay guy in a morose two-hander directed by Ian McKellen at his luvviest. The whole episode is meant to satirise the airy-fairy self-regard of theatre folk. And the empty set, the strained sincerity, the two guys in white underwear - it was all exactly like Real Men, Fake Orgasms.

Or rather, it was exactly like the start of Real Men, Fake Orgasms, because then something different happened: Chua Enlai and Claudio Girardi, playing the two men, started drawing on the black walls with an opaque white marker. They drew bed frames and lions and random doodles, and scribbled over each others' contributions. I initially thought this quite interesting, and was pleased that playwright Chong Tze Chien had incorporated a striking visual element into the play, since visuals are so often his strength. The way the play was going, I thought each character would use their marker to draw the physical and emotional world in which they could be comfortable and then we might see, from the disconnect between the two sets of drawings, exactly why they are unable to be happy together. And perhaps this was the intention, but it didn't work because the wall-drawing was not, as I had originally surmised, present in Chong's script; it was a directorial imposition from Samantha Scott-Blackhall.

A while ago, in a review of Dead Certain, I characterised Scott-Blackhall's direction as competent and clean, but too safe - and this was true of all of her early work that I saw. Shortly after that, she started making interesting choices. In The Physicists, her collapsing set provided a breathtaking moment between acts one and two, but left her with a tiny playing area and ugly shadows in the first half of the play. And with Quills, she vacuum-packed a florid melodrama into the shape of a study in psychological realism - with mixed results. However, even at the moments when her choices seemed most ill-advised, she retained her grip on the basics: blocking, pacing, character interaction. With Real Men, she seems, for the first time, to have sacrificed these: when Chua and Girardi drew on the walls, they were stuck in one place facing away from the audience (blocking), the dialogue had to stop in odd places to accommodate them (pacing) and they were unable to look at each other (character interaction). And since the images the two men produced had only occasional and superficial relevance to what the script was saying, the whole graffiti endeavour became extremely irritating very quickly.

Fortunately, the wall-drawing soon ended and the play switched gear with its scene change. It became clear that the first, pseudo-poetic scene was a framing device, a container for three less suffocatingly symbolic sketches which outlined some of the possibilities of male relationships. These sketches each contained the theme of a man finding reasons not to return another's love (I can't love a transsexual; I can't love my best friend like he wants me to; I can't love someone when I'm dying) and they were effective in places. The best of them was the second, which takes place on a jogging track where a man is trying to disguise his love for his friend with macho one-upmanship and joshing. In this scene, unlike the other two, most of the set-ups Chong had built into his dialogue paid off with amusing punch lines and he found enough variety to sustain the action, escalating the friends' testosterone-fuelled posturing into aggression and then deflating it into regret and discomfort. But mainly these scenes seemed static and constructed, with Chong spending too much effort on slightly awkward wordplay and too little on heart and movement. Certainly there was nothing here I hadn't seen done better in the 2003 Necessary Stage production, Oh Man!, a sketch show that admitted it was a sketch show.

The actors were generally fine, though. Chua was, as usual, slightly broader and more theatrical than he might have been, but he had an infectious energy that made him very watchable. Girardi had a pleasant stillness in places and looked comfortable onstage. Both did enough to differentiate their various characters. But neither looked like they had much to chew on, so their performances never had the opportunity to be better than merely competent.

I don't know what else to say about this production. I don't really see the point of it. It wasn't a psychological exploration; its symbols were vague and intermittent; and its structure, and especially its framing device, didn't hang together. It's puzzling, because Chong has covered all three of these areas beautifully in the past (see Spoilt, Wong Kar Wai Dreams and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, respectively). Chong is a talented playwright, but his output is extremely eclectic, and perhaps he has to decide what he's aiming for, be it visual, symbolic, or naturalistic, before he can make the most of his abilities. Add in some ill-conceived direction that over-rode the script and introduced an unfortunate pretentiousness to the proceedings and you end up with a production whose pleasures were even faker and less orgasmic than one might expect.

"I don't really see the point of this production. It wasn't a psychological exploration; its symbols were vague and intermittent; and its structure, and especially its framing device, didn't hang together"


Playwright: Chong Tze Chien

Director: Samantha Scott-Blackhall

Cast: Chua Enlai and Claudio Girardi

Multimedia Design: Li Hong

Producer: Ekachai Uekrongtham

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