>UNDER by Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble

>reviewed by daniel teo

>date: 15 apr 1999
>time: 8pm
>venue: the guinness theatre, the substation
>rating: **

>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.


When Director, Goh Boon Teck, proclaimed UNDER as THE local play with THE most number of bedroom scenes, prurient interest on the audience's part was obviously raised. Just as Goh predicted, "sex sells!" - people did come to watch a play that promised to reveal all of our deepest base secrets.

No doubt about it, it was truly sex galore at UNDER. Gay, straight, teenage, middle age, old age, illicit, illegal or downright perverted - UNDER had it all. Yet that is precisely the problem with UNDER - while sex is obviously one of the most fascinating and sellable topics a play can ponder, that is no excuse to abuse and exploit the theme.

The opening was promising enough: the unorthodox staging of the play had the audience scattered around in random seats facing different directions. It became clear that the play would not be staged in the conventional "fourth-wall" style but rather all around. Another plus was the preamble. Using Socrates' "Conversations" (though the Director credited those ideas to Plato, Plato merely recorded what Socrates said at a party - those thoughts were not Plato's) was clever as it brought across the play's crux in a succinct and yet refreshing way.

>>'Acting was lackluster, which sent the stories into a vapid blend of tabloid sex and lies.'

The backbone of the whole play uses the philosopher's premise that Man's existence is defined by a continuous search for that ultimate union, that craving for original perfection. This endless yearning for physical intimacy emerges as the odyssey for that other half of oneself. As Jerry Maguire stated very aptly: "You complete me."

With that firmly erected, the play plunged into the ambitious task that it set for itself. Seven independent stories were staged, each representing a different sector of society. There were Jerry Loo and Kohreen, who fleshed out a pair both conducting clandestine relationships outside their marriage. There were also the lesbian daughter, the gay son, the sluttish younger daughter and the maid-abusing elder brother. What a plethora of characters and myriad of stories to tell! As heightened show-and-tell, each character flashed their shocking scandals to the voyeuristic audience.

Yet beneath the initial excitement and cheap thrill, it became clear that without an adroit script and firm directing, the play was going out of hand. Acting was lackluster, which sent the stories into a vapid blend of tabloid sex and lies. In other words, there were no strong actors to lift the stories beyond banality, to give the stories that essential humanity. The only scene that did stand out was the lesbian scene between Jamie Lim and Chee Bing, tender and poignant in juxtaposition to the awkward chemistry of the other couples. Other than that, the acting fell flat, a case of bad sex leaving one feeling cheated.

While the staging was innovative at first, it became increasingly impractical as the play progressed. The audience had to shift incessantly just to get their money's worth of bedroom scenes. Amidst this circus atmosphere, the serious treatment of the theme was severely undercut.

To come up with such a provocative play in defiance of local ethos is a commendable effort. But without talented actors, UNDER was unable to take flight. In addition, the directing and script were unfocused - perhaps a case of spreading the butter too thin? Indeed, the dead weight that shackled the play was the self-indulgent script which had too many crass innuendoes and half-baked in-jokes. It would be better if the director had curbed his grandiose vision to tell a more cohesive tale.

Tacky? Gay fun? Obviously the director had bigger dreams for the play, and it shows. Yet when the play had to cross the chasm between a tacky insipid play and the insightful innovative social study the director envisioned, UNDER sank with the weight of uninspired performances and an over-indulgence of a very much overworked singular hobby horse. From pathos to bathos, the play sunk into the murky abyss. It simply went UNDER.