by Joel Tan
Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore

It only takes a spark to get a fire going, a well-known hymn goes. And in our world of social media, this could not be more true. In Tango, PANGDEMONIUM's first original local production, that spark is an elderly waitress at a Chinese restaurant who refuses to serve a same-sex couple and their adoptive son. When a video of her actions is shared online, this erupts into vitriol, heated debates and a protest rally that rocks the country.

Inspired by the blog 4 Relative Strangers about the parenting experiences of real-life gay couple Mark and Ed Koh-Waite, Tango is a heartfelt and passionate examination of how individuals navigate the meaning of family in Singapore. The opening scene of the play at the restaurant is in fact based on a real event experienced by the couple. The title, meanwhile, derives from children's book And Tango Makes Three about two male penguins who adopt a baby - a book which was infamously transferred to the adult section of the library by the National Library Board in 2014 following a public outcry over its sensitive content. 

The play opens with gay couple Kenneth (Koh Boon Pin) and Liam (Emil Marwa) who have just relocated from London to Singapore with their 12-year-old adoptive son Jayden (Dylan Jenkins in an impressive professional debut). Kenneth, a Singaporean, is here to care for his father, Richard (Lim Kay Siu) who has recently suffered a stroke. Liam, a Briton, hopes that after more than a decade abroad, Singapore society is mature enough to accept their relationship. Following an unpleasant encounter with waitress Poh Lin (Lok Meng Chue), the doors of their life are thrown open amidst an intense public debate about the propriety of her actions. When Jayden is injured in an incident with a group of protestors, the couple begin to question whether Singapore is really the right place for them after all. 

In a parallel storyline, Poh Lin's nephew Benmin (Benjamin Chow), a closeted man, tentatively begins a relationship with Zul (Ruzaini Mazani), a spirited member of the gay community who believes in standing up for his rights. Things take an awkward turn when Benmin discovers that the woman at the centre of the online homophobia scandal is his aunt, the woman who has raised him since he was a child. Whose side will he take?

Playwright Joel Tan gives us a sensitive and incredibly measured portrait of these characters that avoids neat caricature. His characters are flawed and deeply human, responding to the situation they are confronted with in their own way. Koh is arresting as the gay son in complete control of his identity who is unable to shake off the grudge he holds against his father for violently rejecting him in his youth. Lim - the traditional, stoic patriarch - learns that a father is ultimately defined by the extent to which he plays a part in the life and well-being of his children; in a poignant exchange, he acknowledges that Kenneth is only taking care of him out of guilt while Jayden, when the time comes, is likely to do the same for Kenneth out of love.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

This sensitivity also invests the relationship between Benmin and Zul, two lonely strangers trying to make a connection. Chow and Ruzaini make a fantastic pairing with a chemistry that sets their scenes ablaze. They also conjure up the gulf that exists within the gay community, from racism to political apathy, with an endearing blend of humour and pathos. When Benmin finally decides to tell Poh Lin who he really is, the quietness and simplicity of his coming out moves us far more than anything.

As much as we may feel outraged at her actions, it's difficult not to sympathise with Poh Lin who simply responds to a situation based on her own worldview. She is not, fundamentally, a bad person. The idea of two men raising a child together may strike her as a perversion but ironically, she seems unperturbed by the notion of Kenneth's lesbian friend Elaine (Karen Tan) telling her that she is also raising a child with her partner. Indeed, Poh Lin even draws a parallel to the fact that her own Benmin has two mothers: both his biological mother and herself. It reminds us how love and acceptance, ultimately, transcends all labels.

​While there is a richness to the writing and acting, I wasn't altogether enamoured of Tracie Pang's staging. There is certainly something to be said about designer Wai Yin Kwok's labyrinth of staircases and rectangular spaces which alludes to the concrete jungle and how we are all part of the same interconnected ecosystem. Yet, I wonder if a more naturalistic treatment would have been better.

Photo Credit: Crispian Chan

It would have been nice to see the very different worlds these characters inhabit instead of just grey space. When Elaine makes a polite remark upon entering Poh Lin's flat, seeing the (presumably humble) surroundings would have conjured up an image of this woman and her milieu far more strongly. There are times when the staging adds very little to the text, neutering the socio-economic nuances that the script conveys. Certain scenes could just as well have worked in a radio play. 

The tiered, multi-level staging works best as a canvas for Genevieve Peck's multimedia work and James Tan's lighting, allowing various backdrops to superimpose themselves neatly onto the action. Scenes involving the entire cast standing around commenting on the action while the words 'Like' and 'Share' float around the stage powerfully convey the nature of social media where good news travels fast and bad news even faster.   

There is little doubt that Tango is one of the most important works of Singapore theatre to emerge this year and PANGDEMONIUM has crafted a truly inspiring production that is thoughtful, intelligent, urgent and empathetic - a reminder that the personal is, always and inevitably, political. Just days after this production opened, Taiwan made history as the first Asian country to rule in favour of same-sex marriage. Get your act on, Singapore. 

The Crystalwords score: 4/5


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