13 October 2016

Starring Hitler as Jekyll and Hyde

by Chong Tze Chien
The Finger Players
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

This ambitious play, the first of a planned trilogy by playwright-director Chong Tze Chien on Adolf Hitler, seeks to interrogate the life of the infamous German dictator and provide us with a fresh context in which to view the man.

Chong frames his play as a trial where a Nazi police commissioner (Joshua Lim) questions Ava Braun (Edith Podesta), Hitler's mistress, to find out more about him. Braun simply cannot fathom how the man she grew to love so much could be capable of acts of horrific violence and starts painting a portrait of him for us.

We are swept back to a calmer world which presents Hitler (Daniel York) as a struggling painter called Jekyll who fails to get into an art academy and is reduced to hawking his work for money. Braun, a gallery owner, takes pity on him and brings him into her world and gradually, her heart. Little is she aware that Jekyll battles his own demons. He is confronted by a voice deep within him that champions the provenance of a pure Germanic race, spurring him to eradicate Jews whom he feels have unfairly robbed him of artistic advancement.

Taking on this Jekyll and Hyde template, the mild-mannered artist is powerless to control the machinations of his alter ego. Massacres of Jews erupt all over town as the latter's acts grow more insidious. Lim's character, a junior policeman at the time, is tasked with the job of cracking down on this brutal serial killer, all the while hiding his own secret: his beloved childhood nanny (Jo Kukathas) is herself a Jew and has been staying with him.

The production is carried by the strength of its ensemble cast and there are particularly powerful turns from York, who invests the titular character with malevolence and melancholy, and Podesta as a strong yet tragic voice of reason. In a nod to the company's roots in puppet work, Chong makes extensive use of shadows, where actors enact scenes behind a white screen, looming larger or smaller as they move deftly around the lights. Lim Woan Wen's lighting and Darren Ng's soundscapes contribute to this evocative and visually sumptuous experience, with black and red forming rich colour palettes.
Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

Yet, one remains unsure what Starring Hitler seeks to achieve. Is it meant to humanize a tyrant like Hitler by painting him as a victim of split personality? Or does it seek to satirize the state agenda of controlling artistic expression which results in its own downfall? There are various strands to the tale that do not fully interlock.

Julius Foo appears as a closeted police chief whose clandestine relationship with a younger officer proves to be his undoing. This homosexual theme however seems to be only incidental to the plot. Likewise, Jekyll makes powerful speeches about the merits of art, giving the play the feel of a performance-lecture which rails against arbitrary censorship of the arts. What this adds to the rest of the narrative remains unclear.
A more powerful metaphor is offered in the opening and closing sequences which feature the cast standing in a row, bearing placards with their actual ethnicities. They then flip this around to reveal the words 'Jew' or 'German' to reflect the characters they are playing. The point here seems to be that we are all, always and inevitably, pigeonholed by our identities: be it racial, religious or political. 

Starring Hitler is a play of rich ideas and richer contradictions. Chong may not have something classic on his hands but he has certainly crafted an intelligent work that does not shy away from asking the hard questions. It's just sometimes important to know what these questions actually are.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

11 September 2016


by Yasmina Reza
in a translation by Christopher Hampton
Singapore Repertory Theatre
City Hall Chamber, National Gallery Singapore

Yasmina Reza's 1994 play about three friends and a polarising piece of art grows richer upon each viewing. A Mandarin version by Nine Years Theatre in 2014 brought out the theme of conspicuous consumerism that is so prevalent in parts of Asia. This revival of Christopher Hampton's sparkling English translation (last staged by the SRT in 1998 and 2002) throws into sharp relief the complex nature of friendship and to what extent one feels validated by the choices one's friends make.

Director Danny Yeo has assembled a cast of veteran Singaporean actors for this latest outing. Gerald Chew imbues Serge, the divorced dermatologist who takes great pride in having snagged an aggressively modern, completely white painting for an exorbitant price, with an acerbic condescension that is a delight to watch. Lim Yu-Beng's Marc is all tightly-wound passive aggression as the classicist who simply cannot accept that his best friend has developed such questionable taste and loses no time in denouncing the painting as a "white piece of shit".

Rounding out the cast is Remesh Panicker as the good-natured but ineffectual Yvan who gets pulled into the crossfire between the two men and is forced to take sides when things grow personal. Panicker, reprising the role of Yvan for the third time, is a striking presence as the large yet mousy man-child who is never quite sure what to say. While he doesn't achieve the same note of jittery perfection that brings down the house in his massive monologue about domestic strife in the wake of his impending wedding, his antics break through the tension and add a strong comic vein to the verbal onslaught.

The three actors handle the material with a practiced confidence and easily command the stage though one gets the sense that they are not fully comfortable in their roles. There is an artificiality in the way the dialogue is bandied about at a breathless pace and this makes some of the orotund exchanges rather tedious. I don't think there's any harm in adopting a local setting or introducing the odd bit of vernacular - indeed, this may have brought the characters slightly closer to home.

Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre

One of the areas this production of Art excels in is in holding up the mirror to the fragile nature of friendship. Perhaps what holds a group of friends together after the passage of time is less true companionship and more the ability to achieve a consensus in world views and ideals. When these diverge, there is little to prevent the thread from snapping. The line "So here we are at the end of a fifteen year friendship" emerges as one of the most chilling of the night, reminding us of the extent to which we, consciously or not, dictate the choices our friends make and how tenuous is that link that binds us together.

Yeo's production is billed as giving a fresh spin to this intelligent comedy by staging it in the National Gallery. Yet, the venue and staging prove somewhat of a let down. Aside from the generally poor acoustics in the City Hall Chamber, one rather expects to be surrounded by other paintings, which would have lent a delicious bite to a play which riffs on artistic merit. The set, a simple sofa and chair in front of a painted backdrop, is surprisingly austere for SRT standards.

All in all, this is a decent and serviceable production of a timeless comedy about the power of friendship and the meaning of art. I'm not sure the SRT has brought anything new to the table with this latest iteration - Nelson Chia was far more successful with his crisp, elegant Mandarin version two years back - but it still makes for a terrific night out. One is guaranteed to ponder, just a little longer, the next time one encounters an interesting piece of art. 

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

26 August 2016

The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco

by Huzir Sulaiman
Checkpoint Theatre
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2016: Potentialities
SOTA Drama Theatre, Singapore

Checkpoint Theatre’s latest production is a rich, emotionally absorbing celebration of an artiste’s life. The subject is a veritable titan in his field: 75-year-old Antonio Vargas, one of the world’s leading flamenco dancers and choreographers.
Playwright Huzir Sulaiman distils key events from Vargas’s life into a compelling narrative that sweeps us across seven decades and four continents. We learn about his childhood as a Sephardic Jew in Casablanca, growing up amid a babel of cultures and languages. Upon discovering flamenco at the age of five, he was absolutely entranced by the traditional art form that is simultaneously visceral, emotive and graceful.
Photo Credit: Crispian Chan
Despite early opposition from his father, Vargas stuck to his passion and won a place at the renowned Pilar Lopez Spanish Dance Company before striking out on his own and spreading his craft to places such as the United States, New Zealand, Australia and, most recently, Singapore where he is currently artistic director of dance company Flamenco Sin Fronteras.
While seeing Vargas on stage is a treat in itself, Huzir and director Claire Wong are sensitive to the theme of a collaborative artistic journey, and use an ensemble of eight actors to tell this story. They take turns playing Vargas at different stages of his life.
Wong has assembled some of the finest actor-dancers in the local theatre industry and coaxes superlative performances from them. There are particularly impressive turns by Frances Lee, Thomas Pang and Erwin Shah Ismail. The actors perform flamenco dance sequences with aplomb and delightfully portray the many personalities Vargas encounters in his life.
Photo Credit: Crispian Chan
And what a life it is — touring the world, courting celebrities such as The Beatles and Tom Cruise, and dealing with love and heartbreak. Huzir tackles this with tremendous sensitivity and characteristic finesse, giving us language that is lyrical and evocative.
The production is augmented by Lim Woan Wen’s lighting, with its beautiful colour palettes, Shah Tahir’s absorbing sound design and Chris Chua’s minimalist set. On the multimedia front, one rather wishes to see photo and video excerpts from Antonio’s life, instead of a series of images featuring his current self. While the play stretches to nearly three hours, it is so rewarding that one can hardly complain.
The actors, vocalist Antonio Soria and guitarist Sergio Munoz also break the fourth wall through a series of personal monologues where they reflect on their life and craft as performers. It is here that we see the larger story Huzir wishes to capture; as much as this is about one remarkable life, it is about the interconnectedness between artistes — whether they are just finding their craft or at the pinnacle of their profession. These are individuals ignited by a common passion and witnessing this is both moving and intensely cathartic.
Photo Credit: Crispian Chan
In the last monologue, Vargas tails off, saying “I have no words left”. When he finally takes to the stage for an extended dance solo, we understand. At the end of the day, this man is all about the dance. And it is utterly breathtaking.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

*An edited version of this review was written for TODAY and published on 30 August 2016.

12 August 2016

Hamlet | Collage

based on the play by William Shakespeare
in a translation by Boris Pasternak and Mikhail Lozinsky
adapted by Robert Lepage
Theatre of Nations
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2016: Potentialities
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

One could perhaps be forgiven for expecting something abstract from this production. After all, it's helmed by inventive French-Canadian director Robert Lepage. Yet Hamlet | Collage, presented as part of this year's Singapore International Festival of Arts, proves to be a fairly faithful version of Shakespeare's great tragedy.

The key difference is that the entire play is performed by one person - acclaimed Russian theatre and film actor Evegeny Mironov. He takes on all the principal roles in the text and performs on a constantly rotating, open-faced cube with an assortment of concealed doors and compartments. A team of thirteen people, working behind the scenes, are required to achieve this feat. 

Photo Credit: Sergey Petrov

Lepage and his creative team fuse music, film and lights to create  a constantly engaging theatrical spectacle, aided by video projections that transform the bare walls of the cube into a multitude of settings. The impressive multimedia work plays out like a three- dimensional kaleidoscope. Slight adjustments to the text and the Cold War-era setting also give the production the feel of a spy thriller. One is constantly left guessing as to what will happen next. 

The production is littered with memorable scenes. During the climactic play-within-a-play, Evegeny moves along a bench, deftly portraying the expressions of all the characters watching the troupe of players. The fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes sees the men fighting against video projections of each other like a life-sized computer game. In one of the production's most arresting images, the drowning Ophelia melts into a blue cloth and disappears into a hole in the ground. As the cube rotates, we see her body suspended below the 'water', shimmering and ethereal.

The downside to all this visual splendour is that the character of Hamlet seems to be drowned out. One is so drawn to Evegeny's highly physical, chameleon-like transformations into each character - be it demure Ophelia, pot-bellied, blustery Polonius, regal Claudius or campy Osric - that one ends up losing interest in the Danish prince himself. 

Photo Credit: Sergey Petrov

There is a clear suggestion that this Hamlet is a man imprisoned by his thoughts. The play begins and ends with the image of a weary, straitjacketed Hamlet slumped on the floor and the events of the play seem to be the product of an overwrought mind. There is something quite moving about this version of Hamlet as the sad, solitary outsider, boxed in (quite literally) by a world he is unable to comprehend. However, the sheer variety in the performances and relentlessly inventive staging robs the play of its emotional thrust. 

With a run time of 145 minutes, the production is shorter than most versions of the play. Yet, the action tends to drag due to the constant bombardment of images. The swathes of English surtitles (largely based on the original text) also prove tiring on the eyes and one cannot help growing restless as the play ploughs on without an intermission. 

Ultimately, one cannot deny that Lepage's Hamlet | Collage is a visual tour de force and it boasts a truly captivating performance by Evegeny that is guaranteed to enthrall. A powerful marriage of theatre, technology and technical finesse, this is a Hamlet that is both one man and all men.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

11 August 2016

The Last Supper

by Ahmed El Attar
Singapore International Festival of Arts 2016: Potentialities
Victoria Theatre, Singapore

In a festival typically characterized by the experimental and avant garde, this straight, talky play, written and directed by Egyptian writer Ahmed El Attar, seems a breath of fresh air.

The title and set up - guests seated on one side of a long dining table - may have obvious biblical connotations but the parallels end there. This is a realist snapshot of contemporary Egyptian society, where members of an upper middle class family gather around a table for dinner, each preoccupied with their own problems and predilections. At the centre is the wealthy family patriarch (Boutros Boutros-Ghali) who is joined by an esteemed dinner guest, the General (Sayed Ragab).

Photo Credit: Mostafa Abdel Aly

As the banquet table grows laden with food brought in by attentive servants, the party of urban guests reveal themselves to be both spiritually and morally starved. At one end sits Mido (a motor-mouthed Abdel Rahman Nasser), who is perpetually searching for business opportunities and cannot stop name-dropping his string of powerful connections. His sexy, dolled-up wife Mayoush (Marwa Tharwat) busies herself with make-up and talk of shopping.  At the other end, the patriarch's son (Ramsi Lehner) and his wife Fifi (Nanda Mohamed) watch their children distract themselves with expensive digital toys. A harried maid hovers around.  

The Last Supper is a powerful statement about the callousness that exists amongst members of our global elite, individuals so self-absorbed and caught up in their own lives that they are simply unable to connect with people in their immediate milieu. 

Even if the play is intended to lash out at the Egyptian upper classes who baldly sat through the revolts of the Arab Spring while holding on to their wealth and power, this hardly comes across as a political work. Indeed, there is hardly any talk of local politics at all and the conversation veers from fast cars to social media to international shopping destinations, each topic as vapid as the next. It's something one could easily expect to hear at any dining table around the world.

What comes across more powerfully is the ugliness that exists within this privileged circle. A recurrent theme is the casual inhumanity the men show towards the women. Both wives seem ignored by their husbands. There is an almost shocking disregard the men show in talking about rape and sex in front of their wives. Perhaps fittingly, the matriarch herself remains absent despite being summoned repeatedly by her husband, suggesting the idea of unequal marriages goes all round.

Photo Credit: Mostafa Abdel Aly

Even more chillingly, one is disgusted by the arrogance shown towards the servants who are treated as mere commodities. In a disturbing scene, the patriarch's son encourages his young boy to torment the family butler by repeatedly pummeling him. When the poor man feebly reciprocates, the whole family denounces him as a violent ingrate and he is made to kiss the brat on the head in a gesture of subservience. More than once, the General - an arrogant, bigoted and downright racist man - describes the servant classes as nothing more than "vermin".  There is very little empathy that lurks beneath the surface and it's difficult to escape the parallels to our own society which relies so heavily on foreign workers but yet frequently denigrates them. 

While El Attar's script is fast-paced and rife with detail, it emerges somewhat unsatisfying. This feels like the prelude to a much longer play instead of a fully rounded out performance in its own right. The constant stream of chatter (and not entirely synchronized surtitling of the Arabic dialogue) also makes for fairly tedious viewing. The play is frozen in various red-hued, stylized tableaus that prove alternately humorous and poignant (the reveal of a toned stomach, a wacky family wefie, everyone turning on a servant) although it is difficult to see this as more than an artistic flourish. Nonetheless, El Attar keeps us rapt throughout the hour, perversely drawn to the dynamics of this motley crew and the ensemble cast deliver strong performances. 

Overall, The Last Supper is a canny and candid snapshot of a certain class of privileged individuals that could very well exist anywhere on the planet. As the sounds of their meaningless, overlapping conversations wash over one another in the final moments, one realizes the importance of truly engaging with one's neighbours. 

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

17 July 2016

My Mother Buys Condoms

by Helmi Yusof
Singapore Theatre Festival 2016 (W!LD RICE)
LASALLE Creative Cube, Singapore

The thought of seniors sharing an intimate moment is enough to make most people turn away in embarrassment. Never mind the fact that we have a rapidly ageing population — silver-haired friskiness is a topic shrouded in cultural taboos.

Arts writer Helmi Yusof’s remarkably assured debut play, presented as part of the Singapore Theatre Festival and directed by Ivan Heng, makes a powerful case against such 

The heroes of this tale are the sort of uncles and aunties you pass by on the street without a second glance. 63-year-old retired literature teacher Maggie (Lok Meng Chue), who spends her days giving tuition, meets Raju, a 57-year-old Malaysian repairman (Remesh Panicker), when he comes to fix her air-conditioner. She is a lonely divorcee. He has never been married and has a penchant for crime stories.

What begins as a series of lessons to help Raju read the newspaper blossoms into an unexpected romance. Veteran actors Lok and Panicker beautifully convey that mix of awkwardness and pleasure that animates two individuals who discover that not all of life’s best experiences are behind them. “Why did you touch my hand?” demands a befuddled Maggie. “I like you,” Raju replies simply. And that’s all there is to that.

It’s only a matter of time before the relationship moves into the bedroom and things rapidly go awry. Maggie’s adult son Wilfred (Joshua Lim), and best friend Nora (a scene-stealing Elnie S Mashari) are appalled when they discover the 
clandestine romance.

Photo credit: 36Frames

Nora, a bubbly fellow teacher with a liberal past of her own, is outraged to hear of Maggie’s sexual renaissance and finds herself unable to bear the thought of sending her son for tuition to the home of such a “disgusting” person.

In a manner reminiscent of Haresh Sharma’s social drama Poor Thing about road rage, mild-mannered family man Wilfred reveals his inner ugliness by accusing Raju of being a scheming “foreign worker” simply after his mother’s money, resorting to vulgarities and violence. It’s a reminder of the deep-seated prejudice that manifests itself when one is confronted with anything that does not conform with the status quo, be it alternative lifestyles or 
political affiliations.

Heng maintains razor-sharp control over the performances, allowing for a wonderful blend of slapstick and sentimentality that plays out on Wong Chee Wai’s fully realised, book-filled set.

Photo credit: 36Frames

While Helmi has a good ear for dialogue and handles the tricky subject matter with confidence, certain sequences feel contrived. Maggie’s bold 'I-am-who-I-am' declaration at the end seems rather out of character, and the inclusion of a daughter, Gwen (Seong Hui Xuan), with her own fairly predictable revelation does not add much to the overall theme.

Still, this honest, funny and ultimately heartwarming play is a reminder that all of us have the right to seek love. One should never be held back by something as mundane as age.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

*An edited version of this review was written for TODAY and published on 21 July 2016.

02 July 2016

Riders Know When It's Going to Rain/ Hawa

by Nessa Anwar and Johnny Jon Jon
W!LD RICE / Hatch Theatrics
Creative Cube
LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore

This double bill, part of the opening weekend of the Singapore Theatre Festival organised by W!LD RICE, is a great showcase of new Singaporean Malay writing. The two plays are vastly different in theme and make for a long session when seen together but provide plenty of food for thought.

The evening kicks off with Riders Know When It's Going to Rain, which first appeared as a staged reading during overnight literary and performance arts showcase What I Love About You Is Your Attitude Problem as part of last year's Singapore Writers Festival. Nessa Anwar's debut play revolves around four friends and the one love of their lives: motorbike riding. Nessa is herself an avid rider and this infuses her writing with a fierce authenticity. Four motorbikes sit proudly onstage throughout the performance, giving us an immediate connection to this colourful world.

The play is comprised of short vignettes that move back and forth over a period of eight years. At the heart of the story is Risha (Nessa), a tough, spunky girl in this male-dominated world who has far more in common with her riding friends than her university schoolmates. These friends range from the wealthy but down-to-earth Remy (Raimi Safari), soulful, all round nice guy Nizam (Riduan Zalani) and swaggering Alep (Norisham Osman), a guy who lives to ride and pays scant regard to his personal safety.

Riders is a gripping portrait of individuals from this milieu - the tendency to define oneself by the machine one rides, the daily struggles and frustrations and above all, the infectious zest for life. Nessa is especially successful in capturing the earthy and earnest banter amongst friends. Scenes featuring the gang simply hanging out and teasing each other are lived-in and instantly believable.

Photo Credit: 36Frames

However, the numerous scene transitions (which involve a hospital bed being wheeled on and off) prove clunky. The play is also weighed down by monologues which feel incongruous to the generally laid-back, naturalistic dialogue. Indeed, I was reminded of Nessa's own turn in multidisciplinary student production City Night Songs where her character (a likely precursor to Risha) breaks into a poetic speech about speeding bikers which feels rather artificial. For all fun and banter, I didn't really see what kept these four friends together.  

Director Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit calibrates the emotions well and strikes a good balance between comedy and drama. While there is a sense of impending tragedy, this is never overplayed. On the technical side, James Lye conjures up evocative soundscapes to augment the action.

Ultimately, Riders is both chatty exposé and cautionary tale - an ode to the world of riding and a warning against the dangers of doing so recklessly. It may not always cruise along at a perfect speed but this is one road trip to remember.

Where Riders can be seen as a celebration of life and its transient thrills, Hawa remains resolutely focused on the opposite. Johnny Jon Jon's play, which enjoyed a small but warmly received staging by Hatch Theatrics last year, explores the topic of Muslim burial, something rarely seen onstage, while also touching on religion and sexuality.

The play revolves around Siti (Koh Wan Ching), a recent Muslim convert who is trying to organise the final burial rites for her female friend who is later revealed to be her lover. She faces considerable difficulty trying to get through to Ahmad (Saiful Amri), the proprietor of the Muslim burial company whom she engages. Things take an interesting turn when they are joined by Zaki (Al-Matin Yatim), a young man who routinely attends the funerals of strangers.

There are many powerful questions that Jon Jon attempts to address including religious double standards, the clash between form and substance and the importance of love and acceptance. Hawa is striking in its portrayal of a fiercely independent Muslim woman, one who is unafraid to question her religious expectations and challenge the status quo.

Koh's Siti is an entrancing presence who demands answers from her faith. In one scene, she rips off her headscarf and throws it to the floor, decrying it as a piece of cloth that does not change who she is. Yet, the same religion which frowns upon her lesbian relationship is what she turns to for solace, reminding us of that human need to believe in something greater than oneself.

Indeed, none of these characters are perfect. Ahmad, for all his religious superiority, is revealed to be a fairly mercenary character who has no qualms about hiring mourners for a fee and selling expensive funeral packages to make a quick buck. Zaki, despite reiterating his fardhu or religious obligation as a fellow mourner, has the disturbing habit of chatting up "veiled sisters" at funerals. Over and over, the play drives home the fact that outward displays of religion are no indicator of true morality.
Photo Credit: 36Frames

Director Faizal Abdullah (who also has a cameo as the deceased's estranged father) keeps the action flowing smoothly and uses the space effectively with simple blocks as props and curtained partitions for flashbacks. However, the play is not without its flaws. The pace slows down considerably towards the end and the narrative can certainly be tightened. Scene transitions featuring female voiceovers which describe different qualities and those involving a young Ahmad visiting his mother's grave do not add much to the plot.  

Hawa is at its most gripping when it gives us an insight into religious rituals that few may be privy to. The play's most arresting scene involves Ahmad giving Siti a long, detailed account of how to wash and prepare a Muslim body for burial, a task which can only be performed by a person of the same gender. Seeing this procedure re-enacted drives home the finality of death in a powerful way. As the characters stand to recite the final prayers for the deceased, one gets the sense that an equilibrium of some sort has finally been reached.

Riders and Hawa are important additions to the local theatrical canon, presenting alternative voices that one rarely gets a chance to engage with. These are flawed but deeply human characters whose stories deserve to be told.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

09 June 2016

Ghost Writer

by Haresh Sharma
dramaturged by Charlene Rajendran
The Necessary Stage
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

What makes us who we are? What pushes us to create art? The Necessary Stage’s latest collaborative, devised production, Ghost Writer, seeks to explore these hard questions by taking us on a journey that cuts across different artistic disciplines.
The narrative, crafted by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan with dramaturgy by Charlene Rajendran, is broken into chapters focusing on different characters.
Celebrated dancer Savitri (Sukania Venugopal) has inherited her father’s bharathanatyam dance school in India and is searching for a successor. Her most-promising dance pupil Priya (Ruby Jayaseelan) emigrates to Canada to expand her craft and ends up re-discovering her cultural identity. Savitri’s academic son (Ebi Shankara), on the other hand, moves to Singapore with his new bride (Sharda Harrison), a woman who learns to find her own voice and exorcise her inner demons.
Photo credit: Caleb Ming/ SURROUND
The tales of these three women — powerful, bold and passionate — form the heart of the show and unfurl in an adroit fusion of dance, theatre, film and music. The spirit of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and his muse Kadambari lingers delicately over the performance and provide a rich aesthetic gloss. Interspersed throughout the narrative is a series of filmed interviews about the provenance of the dance school over the years, a symbol of the artistic spirit that binds them together.
The theatre elements are far easier to digest and allow for rich, absorbing performances by the likes of veteran actress Venugopal and rising star Harrison. The dance aspects, however, are a little more abstruse, particularly to the casual theatre-goer. Choreographer Ole Khamchanla juxtaposes modern dance with classical movements, and this collision between styles can sometimes appear baffling. Dance artist Jereh Leong, who plays Priya’s love interest, twirls and thrashes around in a remarkably acrobatic but distracting fashion that seems to blend yoga and breakdancing.
It would be impossible not to credit the production team in such a richly collaborative endeavour. Brian Gothong Tan’s multimedia design features striking textual projections and black-and white filmed sections that infuse the narrative with magnificence and melancholy. Wong Chee Wai’s mobile, utilitarian set forms a blank canvas for a variety of visual spectacles.
Photo credit: Caleb Ming/ SURROUND
One cannot deny the creativity in the soundscapes by award-winning Bani Haykal, an arresting aural potion that blends the familiar and ethereal, and that is beautifully complemented by the live vocals of Namita Mehta. However, the almost-constant stream of sounds could quite easily have been pared down to let the visuals speak for themselves.
At just seventy minutes, the production does not outstay its welcome, although there is some imbalance between the generally linear exposition in the first half and the more abstract sequences that creep in towards the end.
Ghost Writer is a re-worked version of the company’s 2014 production Gitanjali (I feel the earth move) — a somewhat raw and frustrating work that had a similar framework and characters. The cross-disciplinary craft has certainly been refined, but is some way from being perfect. Still, this is one fusion experiment well worth visiting.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

*An edited version of this review was written for TODAY and published on 13 June 2016.

14 May 2016


by Deanna Jent
KS Arts Centre, Singapore

In a society that valorises wealth, popularity and privilege, too many of our everyday heroes are ignored. Falling, a gripping drama by American playwright Deanna Jent, sheds light on just one such group — the caregivers of people with autism.

The Yeos are a typical family: Rebellious teenage daughter Lisa (Fiona Lim), nagging parents Bill and Tami (Adrian Pang and Tan Kheng Hua) and a Bible-thumping grandmother who has come to visit (Neo Swee Lin). The only difference is that living among them is Josh (Andrew Marko), Bill and Tami’s severely autistic 18-year-old son.

Josh’s condition is such that he requires constant attention. He gets agitated by loud noises like the sound of a blender or a dog barking, likes routine and nothing calms him more than pulling a string attached to a box, causing feathers to cascade over his head.

A simple exercise of getting Josh ready for school is a mission — his parents have to enact song and dance sequences and deal with his daily tantrums, some more violent than others.

Marko gives a standout performance that is all twisted hand gestures, shuffles and grunts, a tour de force of character acting that is testament to the detailed preparation that has been undertaken to understand why Josh acts the way he does.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM!

It’s no surprise that Josh’s condition takes an enormous toll on the family. Tami resorts to alcohol to calm her nerves and is emotionally distant from her husband. Lisa just wants to live a normal teenage life without her “freak” of a brother. “You can hate him,” Tami tells her at one point. “Mothers don’t have that choice.”

Tan’s Tami is the beating heart of the show and her nuanced performance of a quietly resilient mother will have one biting back tears. Indeed, it’s nothing short of fiercely unconditional love that enables one to deal with a situation like this on a daily basis, being constantly bullied and berated. In one of the play’s most powerful moments, Tami dreams what her life would be like if Josh dies and is so consumed by guilt that she rushes to hug her bemused son, realising that there is no truer gift than him just standing there, being himself.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, PANGDEMONIUM!

Much of what makes Falling so powerful is its authenticity — Jent is herself the mother of an autistic child — and her scenes pulsate with honesty. Director Tracie Pang calibrates the emotional temperature to perfection, keeping the action lived-in and avoiding sentimentality or theatrics. The play also translates effortlessly to a Singapore setting, reminding us that autism is very much a universal problem. The production is rounded out by Wong Chee Wai and Chris Chua’s stunningly recreated apartment set and James Tan’s beautiful lighting.

It is important to recognise PANGDEMONIUM!’s outreach efforts to members of the autistic community and engaging post-show talks. Awareness is the first step to a society that will stop such individuals from falling through the cracks. Like Josh, they just need the comfort of feathers.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

*This review was written for TODAY and published on 16 May 2016.

09 May 2016

Playwrights' Galore (2016)

Here's the annual list of playwrights of whom I've seen at least three plays. Joining the list for the first time is Zizi Azah and (far too late) Kuo Pao Kun.

More significantly, I've finally completed more than half the Shakespearean canon following two very fortuitous theatre marathons over past year: John Barton and Peter Hall's The Wars of the Roses in Kingston, London last October and the RSC King and Country series comprising the two Henry IV plays and Henry V in Hong Kong this March. 21 down, 16 more to go!

William Shakespeare (21)
-Twelfth Night (x4)
-Romeo & Juliet (x4)
-The Taming of the Shrew (x3)
-The Tempest (x3)
-Macbeth (x3)
-A Midsummer Night's Dream (x2)
-Othello (x2)
-King Lear (x2) 
-Hamlet (x2)
-Richard III (x2)
-Julius Caesar
-Much Ado About Nothing 
-The Winter's Tale
-The Merchant of Venice
-Henry VI Part I
-Henry VI Part II
-Henry VI Part III
-Henry IV Part I
-Henry IV Part II
-Henry V

Alan Ayckbourn (11)
-Absurd Person Singular
-Table Manners
-Living Together
-Round and Round the Garden
-Bedroom Farce
-Taking Steps
-Season's Greetings
-Snake in the Grass
-Life of Riley
-Relatively Speaking
-A Small Family Business

Haresh Sharma (9)
-Mixed Blessings
-What Big Bombs You Have!!!
-Off Centre
-Gemuk Girls
-Best Of
-Poor Thing
-Pioneer (Girls) Generation

Alfian Sa'at (8)
-Cooling Off Day (x2)
-Dreamplay: Asian Boys Vol. 1
-Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol. 2
-Hansel & Gretel
-Cook a Pot of Curry
-Geng Rebut Cabinet

Noel Coward (5)
-Present Laughter
-Blithe Spirit
-Private Lives
-Design for Living
-Hay Fever

Harold Pinter (4)
-The Lover (x2)
-The Dumb Waiter
-The Collection

Irfan Kasban (4)
-94:05 (x2)
-Genap 40

Neil Simon (4)
-The Prisoner of Second Avenue (x2)
-The Odd Couple (female version)
-Lost in Yonkers

Tom Stoppard (4)
-Rock 'n' Roll
-The Real Thing
-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Arther Miller (4)
-The Man Who Had All the Luck
-The Crucible
-All My Sons
-Death of a Salesman

Tennessee Williams (4)
-Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
-The Glass Menagerie
-A Streetcar Named Desire
-Sweet Bird of Youth

Chong Tze Chien (4)
-Rant & Rave (x2)
-Real Men, Fake Orgasms
-Turn by Turn We Turn

David Mamet (3)
-Glengarry Glen Ross

Anton Chekhov (3)
-The Seagull
-The Cherry Orchard

Peter Shaffer (3)
-Black Comedy
-White Lies

Henrik Ibsen (3)
-Hedda Gabler
-The Master Builder
-An Enemy of the People

Huzir Sulaiman (3)
-Atomic Jaya
-The Weight of Silk on Skin

Kuo Pao Kun (3)
-The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole
-Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral
-The Spirits Play

Zizi Azah (3)
-The Gunpowder Trail