One Hot Light
I wasn't sure what to expect as I made my way to the Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre. I had not heard of Underground Theatre before, the company having only just been set up last year. However, I had become a fan of Rei Poh after seeing him in Drama Box's Trick or Threat and the publicity for Foreplay sounded innocuous enough: four amusing short plays laced with black humour. If nothing else, I figured, Foreplay would at least be short - the running time was, after all, only just over an hour. I wasn't sure if I would necessarily want to commit to a review of the show though so I paid my own way but let me tell you, that it was $10 certainly well spent.
Mind you, the evening did not actually start off on the right note. Entering the cramped and poorly-ventilated black box, I was overwhelmed by the incessant haze from a smoke machine (which, oddly, was never actually used in the context of any of the plays so I have no idea why it was there at all) and the fact that the house music consisted of literally one track being played over and over again - I must have heard White Rabbit about six times in a row before Foreplay began! All my fears about small, experimental productions began rearing their ugly heads...
Thankfully, the show itself was much more amiable right from the opening piece, Fat, a conversation between to girls, one of whom (Joanne Ng) goes off on an extended rant about the trials of being fat while her hapless friend (Dew M. Chaiyanara) listens blithely. The text was a little too insistent and threatened at times to be caught in too much repetition even for a ten-minute play but, for the most part, Fat worked nicely: there were some moments, drawn from painfully authentic situations, that were genuinely funny and occasionally quite moving and both actresses turned in sincere and likeable performances.
I particularly liked how the piece ended, with the girl's friend finally screaming, "I hate you!", not, one suspects because the girl is fat, but because the girl can't shut up about it. The ending works because its message is hinted at rather than being explicitly stated. Dew who wrote all four plays does this in a couple of her other pieces as well and both Goodnight and Taxi benefit from this confidence in her storytelling and actors. In Goodnight, for example, an unreasonable wife (Ng) talks incessantly to her husband (Rei Poh) so that he cannot sleep and it is only at the end, when she suddenly vanishes and the man, alone, begins to cry quietly into his pillow that we realize that she was probably only a figment of his imagination, a wife perhaps little appreciated at the time but now lost, who had been pulled back into existence by his memory. In Taxi, a couple (Ng and Poh) can't get a cab despite their best efforts and never understand why although the audience can guess the reason from the fact that they are both dressed in white, with skid marks across their chests, and are stuck in a cemetery.
As a playwright, Dew demonstrates various strengths consistently across the four ten-minute (or so) plays: her narrative ideas are simple but engaging, she has a good ear for dialogue and she is able to set up very funny lines and set pieces. Her dialogue can lack variety in content and this was especially noticeable as all the plays were two-handers but the tightness and steadiness of her writing make up for that. She has a very clear grasp of the fundamentals of a short plays: there is nothing particularly inspired or innovative in her work but there is nothing self-indulgent, pretentious or flaccid about it either.
Similarly, the direction of the four plays (Sugiman Rahmat directed Fat while Dew directed Goodnight, The Reunion and Taxi herself) possessed a solidity which got the job done without much fuss. There were some creative blocking decisions in Fat and Taxi that added some colour to the proceedings but essentially, this was directing straight out of the textbook and no worse for it. The sets and costumes stood out for me as they showed creativity, thought and effort despite what I assume was a relatively small budget but where I think the plays were let down, however was in the lighting: regardless of whether it was needed or anyone was in it, a hard-edged, pale blue spot pointed vertically down at the centre of the stage at all times. This was as inexplicable a decision as the repetitive house music and the constant tendrils of smoke. Clearly, someone in Underground Theatre needs to sit down and have a think about what sound, lighting and special effects are actually for.
In terms of the acting, Ng, who appeared in all four of the plays impressed the most. She did not have much transition time to take on her different roles but she nonetheless appeared transformed in each - kudos to the costume and make-up team as well for their speedy work! She went from being an ordinary, girl next door in Fat to psycho-bimbo in Goodnight, and then from mousy in The Reunion to feisty in Taxi, calibrating each change just right. She stumbled in the denouement of The Reunion when her stinging comeback to an uppity old friend (a rather miscast Dew) lacked the required venom but otherwise, her performances always gave the plays the energy they needed. Poh is, as always, enjoyable to watch. He has a casualness about him that is attractive and he had good chemistry with Ng. I preferred him in Threat though because he did struggle a little here with the cadence and rhythms of Dew's writing whereas he seemed more in his element with the distinctively Singaporean accent of Threat.
All in all, Foreplay was a satisfying evening and I certainly
look forward to seeing more of Dew's work. She shows potential and I
am eager to see what will happen if she pushes herself harder and tries
to take her writing and directing to the next level. A little more ambition,
imagination and flair and Dew could find herself creating not only a
good piece of theatre but a great one.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /