>FABRIC by The Singapore Repertory Theatre

>reviewed by chong tze chien

>date: 17 jun 1999
>time: 8pm
>venue: the world trade centre auditorium
>rating: *1/2

>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.


If FABRIC had stopped with its program booklet, it might have been a better play. Based on an actual case of 72 illegal Thai immigrants who were exploited by a garment factory for cheap labour in the USA, the play was impossibly stale. As the actors took their curtain call two hours after the opening scene, one was none the wiser about the plights of the Thai immigrants beyond the facts dished out in the program. Touting itself as a dramatisation of the actual events leading up to the immigrants' finally gaining citizenship, the play ironically had little dramatic action to sustain audience interest. Considering that the play's premise is a rich ground for themes of oppression and dislocation of the human spirit, and a stellar cast (the likes of Tsai Chin and Jennifer Paz to name a few) to reckon with, the odds of FABRIC bombing were almost unthinkable. To my unmitigated horror, however, Henry Ong - the playwright-cum-director, managed to realise the unthinkable.

One suspects that Ong was trying to write an epic. Thirty-odd characters were shared by a cast of eleven, a larger half of which bore no real dramatic significance to the plot. Those characters who did move the plot, on the other hand, diffused into the multiple personalities each actor was playing. As a result, most scenes and their characters were so sketchy that one had to second guess the identities the actors were playing at any one time. One was never too sure, for example, if the proprietress's daughter-in-law (Debra Teng) was in fact the same Thai girl who was raped by the son in an earlier scene or just the same actress playing two different roles. The problem lay with the lack of discretion and crafting on the playwright's part: it seemed as if he had all and sundry who took part in the real events represented on stage, whether this was a good idea or not. It didn't help that the direction lacked clarity as one had to wonder at which points each scene began and ended. The characters sometimes slipped in and out of their immediate time frame and space to go into another without warning, leaving one baffled at what had gone on before.

>>'One did not know whether to be bored or to cringe at bad taste'

The direction also bordered on predictability and kitsch. One did not know whether to be bored or to cringe at bad taste. It was a keen contest between uninspired scenes where any hint of dramatic tension was smothered to oblivion by contrived execution, and scenes which teetered on the edge of the ridiculous. In one bizarre scene, an escapee (Lydia Look), upon meeting her love interest (Karl Suriya) in a Thai Temple, suddenly broke into a Thai dance number with such enthusiastic aplomb that even attributing it to the "ways-of-the-mystical-east" would not suffice.

More alarming was that the production smacked of a blistering amateurism. Transitions from one scene to another were so unpolished and clumsily executed that the stage hands and actors seemed to risk colliding into one another at several points in the play. The set looked as if it came right out from the dumps of a secondary school drama production. With barbed wire and what looked like battered pieces of copper plates clustered around the proscenium arch of WTC auditorium, the weary-looking set suffered from a case of over designing for a shallow stage. And when actors were moving props on their own in the first half, to have stage hands suddenly appearing in the second half to remove items under full lighting just sent one wondering if the cast had doubled over the course of the interval. The direction, or the lack of it, was bereft of judgment.

At least, though, one was brought to empathise with the Thai immigrants at the end of the play - the excruciating wait for freedom from nerve-wracking prolonged agony.