September 3, 2014

Let’s Get Back Together by Red Pill Productions (2/9/2014)



Following in the footsteps of interview based plays, such as Alfian Sa’at’s Cooling Off Day and Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, Let’s Get Back Together (LGBT, pun fully intended!) follows interviews, Facebook statuses and blogposts revolving around what it’s like to be a member of the LGBTQ community in Singapore. Interviewees range from prominent members of the community such as ‘Tania’, ‘Otto’ and ‘Vincent’, to brave admissions on IWIllSurvive, to interviews with ordinary, everyday people, both straight and gay.

Despite a slow start and bumpy direction/acting, LGBT quickly draws the audience into its world of heartfelt, sometimes brutally honest confessions and feelings. Handily divided into sections surrounding childhood, army, family and religion, the impact of the monologues come hard and fast, often exempt from flowery language and hitting you right in the gut with raw, relatable emotion.  
   
The brilliant video and soundwork complemented the monologues very well and often added a new layer of depth to the monologues, particularly the segment extracted from Channel U showcasing multiple people on the street admitting that they are unaccepting of homosexuality, which segued into monologues surrounding the topic of familial acceptance. One could even compare the technical work to that of a modern art piece displayed in a museum, such as during Ezzat Alkaff’s monologue while dozens of eyes began appearing on the screen behind him.

The one thing that really took me by surprise was the extremely flat and unexpected ending, which betrayed the well built string of monologues by capping off on a bland, dull note. One particular monologue by ‘Otto’ about reconciliation with family members and that family remained the most important aspect struck a chord with me, and I thought that would have been a much better and more impactful monologue to end off with.

Although the nature of the script did not give much room for showcasing chemistry onstage, the cast of 6 managed to hold their own and deliver the emotion expected and required of such a script, which was much more important than certain directorial decisions to add background actions from the other actors while a monologue was ongoing, which acted more as distraction than complement. There were certainly hits and misses, a big one being Rosemary McGowan’s attempt at doing a piece in Chinese, which was awkward and stumbled over. However, her crisp, clear enunciation served her well in her roles as ‘Tania’ and ‘Melissa’, interviewees who had particularly angry and lengthy monologues. Matthew Fam almost always plays campy, flamboyant characters throughout LGBT, which worked for some but not so much for others. A friend and I agreed that he got ‘Ivan’ down pretty well though, which you’d be surprised, is actually very hard to do. Mitchell Fang was able to showcase multiple types of characters well, including drag queen ‘Mistevious’, and the other two female cast members, Theresa Wee-Yenko and Cassandra Spykerman presented convincing accounts of lesbians and transmen alike, while Ezzat Alkaff's account as a Muslim man reconciling his religion with his sexuality was particularly powerful. These are some serious actors to look out for in future.

An issue I had was with the lighting, which, whether intentional or not, left the actors in shadow a lot of the time, and particular in the scenes where the actors were placed on either side of the stage, leaving a big empty space in the middle, the lighting is more important than ever not to leave them obscured but highlighted.
   
As a final note, to me, despite the title abbreviating to LGBT, I thought it was also poignant in that it represented not a couple getting back together, but rather, seemed to imply the state coming to terms with the existence of the LGBTQ community and the hope that one day, the community would ‘get back together’ and finally be accepted by the state.

I applaud Red Pill Production’s daring move to stage such a piece so early on in their career, and can only hope that they continue to push the envelope and go on to greater things ahead. LGBT serves as a 2014 time capsule of LGBT movement in Singapore, in a year full of incident, such as NLB’s book pulping and the Wear White movement, capturing the state of affairs and leaving audiences with the benefit of comprehension and the hope of change.  


JustWatchLah Rating: 3.25/5

August 19, 2014

BIG BIRDS



Following the principle advice of Martha Graham, ‘Great dancers are not great because of their technique; they are great because of their passion’ has led Isaac Tan,18 and Vishnucharan Naidu,19 to open up a multi-
disciplinary theatre company called ‘BIG BIRDS Productions’. After the successful run of their first production titled ‘9 SQUARES’ in 2013 with heavy support from the National Arts Council’s [Match-Box], BIG BIRDS PRODUCTIONS is pleased to announce a second production titled ‘BIG BIRDS’,. BIG BIRDS will be Double-bill production with the titles ‘Men & their Bull-Shit’[Isaac Tan] & ‘Burning Bridges’ [Vishnucharan Naidu] directed, produced, scripted and performed by the duo.

Bringing a good message on any stage is a dream come true especially so for the duo. They are well-equipped to be the next buds to further add growth to the vastly growing arts industry in Singapore. The Duo will certainly bring about a spark of change not only to the arts but set the example for the fellow youth in Singapore. As young teenagers themselves, they have the dire need to inspire other youth in Singapore that anything is possible. We are aged 18 & 19 and we want to produce a multi-disciplinary theatre production to inspire and raise questions in one-self. The production team consists of students aged 18-19 with the same belief as their company BIG BIRDS.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bigbirdsproductions

Instagram: http://instagram.com/cagethebigbirds

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cagethebigbirds

Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/user/cagethebigbirds   

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hikaru's note: I recalled there was quite a bit of unhappiness from the production team/audience after my review of "9 squares" last year. I wrote to the boys and assured them that what I wrote was my honest opinions about the show and they should definitely continue to strive on (and prove me wrong in their next show). I am very happy to have received this flyer from them and will definitely catch this show, waiting for these boys to impress me after a year of hard work :)

July 27, 2014

Innamorati The Musical 《唯一》- 25 July 2014


Justwatchlah had the privilege of being invited to the gala premiere of Toy Factory's brand new Chinese musical - Innamorati. The musical features the 12 of Eric Moo's compositions, including songs like 《红尘来去一场梦》,《太傻》, etc.  It also puts together a cast of musical talents such as Jing Wong (黄靖伦),Tay Kewei (郑可为),and Sugie Phua (潘嗣敬)。

The 7 cast members are definitely singers. More often than not, I would find myself indulging in their singing, even though they may just be standing there, and belting out the melodies of songs that have accompanied me as I was growing up. It was a pity there wasn't a live band though -  In my opinion, it would have escalated the sense of nostalgia and perhaps, the more touching moments in the musical as well. 

Strictly speaking, Innamorati is not a musical (音乐剧) per se; if I could reclassify it, it should be more aptly known as a 小品音乐剧。And that aspect of it is endearing. It is an intimate showcase of the actors' stories (some fact, some fiction - I'll get to that later), and minimalist in its presentation.  It chooses not to impress you with the grandeur of musicals; it chooses to play up the actors' strengths so that they can relate more with the audience. There also isn't an overarching narrative with main protagonists; it's an ensemble piece.  The cast at times provide the ambient sounds; Tay Kewei played the erhu, Trey Ho played the saxophone and Bonnie showed snippets of opera singing. There was a synergy amongst this ensemble which was raw and unassuming and it pervaded their performance. If you are looking for professional musical performers, then I'd suggest not doing it here. There are some cast members which are definitely not the polished performers you'd see at other musical performances, but they are nonetheless honest and very relatable, and that is the quality that, if you appreciate, would make the performance all the more worthwhile. 

I had some problems with the script though. Granted, this musical may be the debut of 26 year-old playwright Jiang Daini, but it shouldn't be an excuse for some of the flaws (in my opinion) this musical had. Firstly, I couldn't really understand why the cast were playing actors who had similar names (similar because some of the way the names were spelt for the characters were different from that of the name of the actual cast) to other cast members. I understand that there might have been some mixing of fact and fiction to make the script more interesting but it felt more of a superficial choice than anything that really resonated. And the facts raised seemed to belong to the actual cast themselves, and not that of the characters whose names resembled another cast member.  It got me confused at some points, and I was waiting for the pay-off for this artistic choice, but it never came. I thought the playwright had done it to blend the identities of the characters, but each of them were distinct enough to have story arcs that seemed different from one another. The script also had many monologue chunks - The characters often ended up telling the audience what they and the others were feeling, and that didn't help move the story along. Further, I also felt that the script provided a premise where the characters did not have much redeeming quality - Trey was playing an idealistic saxophonist who ended up someone else because his initial lover got too pragmatic for him. Benita Cheng played a character who was smart enough to coach her friend for music competitions, yet was gullible enough to be tricked into going to a shady music publishing company. At times, all the characters felt too idealistic and naive for the musical to have the gravitas it needed (since it was also sharing personal stories of some of the cast members). That being said, it seemed like some of the cast members were not strong actors; they were, after all, professional singers. 

Nevertheless, there were some moments which I enjoy, such as the repartee between Jing Wong and Sugie Phua. Moments like this made the actors more endearing, and connected them with the audience, which I guess was important because the musical had such an intimate quality to it. 

The script did also have some redeeming quality - there were some beautiful lyrical lines, and it was music to the ears considering that some of the music lyrics were equally beautiful as well. The lighting design and artistic direction followed consistently to its philosophy of minimalism, a fresh take given the style of recent Chinese musicals, so kudos to that.  

Overall, Innamorati was a neat musical, and presented a work that was definitely different from the usual musical fanfare. It was quiet, raw and unassuming, preferring to let the music of Eric Moo take the frontseat instead. And who would say no to these childhood songs we grew up with?




July 20, 2014

Red by Blank Space Theatre, Esplanade Theatre Studio, 13 July 2014


My apologies for the delayed entry, caused by a really busy work schedule this past week.

As mentioned previously, I was drawn to this play for 2 main reasons: a script penned by John Logan ( Gladiator, Skyfall ), and Gavin Yap, who impressed me greatly in Pangdemonium's Fat Pig earlier this year.

The production was, in my opinion, incredible. The last live performance I saw at this venue was Pangdemonium's Gruesome Playground Injuries in late 2013. And I did NOT enjoy it, despite trying my best to do so.

Red, on the other hand, was a joy to behold. The small, intimate space worked extremely well as the audience was fully immersed in the artist's studio. I especially appreciate how the actors literally got their hands dirty, mixing paints and priming a canvas with admirable skill. I made sure to sit in the first row - partly for more leg room, but also because that's where you get the best view. However, the additional olfactory stimulation was a treat, from the tangy scent of the paints to the spicy aroma from the hot noodles. Definitely added a whole new dimension to the experience!

Featuring only 2 actors, Logan's play is designed as a constant battle of wits. Though it initially appears the young Ken may be no match for the celebrated, arrogant Mark Rothko, as the show progresses, we see the tables gradually turn.

A certain local journalist's review described the script as "whiny", which I find utterly laughable. I'd like to see her say this to the author's face someday, if she dares.

Logan's mastery of the English language is exquisite. Art is something I know very little about ( multiple attempts to understand its concepts have unfortunately failed, though I greatly enjoy visits to museums when I travel ), yet as the play progressed, it became apparent that it actually wasn't just about art, but much more universal themes.

Anyone who's ever created something s/he cares about deeply will understand why Rothko protected his work like a neurotic parent. And the fascinating argument about artistic integrity versus ego-boosting public reverence and greed - that can apply to any profession.

Two verbal exchanges also stood out: first, an early debate about what the colour red means to each character, in which Ken's choices ( among them fruits and Santa Claus ) contrasted starkly with Rothko's ( blood and Nazism ). The second was close to the finale - when Ken's heated criticism of Rothko's "selling out" resulted in a major turn of events.

However, I found the entire 2-hour performance riveting. Logan's script is instrumental, of course, but the cast and director are also key to its success.

Daniel Jenkins was fantastic as Rothko. Trust me, it is NOT easy to talk non-stop for 120 minutes, especially when the language is so flowery. In addition, Rothko is depicted as an insanely high-strung Type A personality who views the world around him with bitter disdain. I can only imagine how exhausting it must have been for Jenkins, especially on days when there was more than one show.

Rothko isn't meant to be likable, but there's no denying his brilliance. It is to Jenkins' huge credit that he never dropped a single line or ran out of steam throughout the entire performance. In fact, I consider it on par with a Broadway show I caught recently, i.e. Bryan Cranston's Tony Award-winning turn as President Lyndon B. Johnson in All The Way. Both men were proud and difficult, yet also plagued by crippling insecurities. Roles which could've easily degenerated into annoying melodrama in less capable hands, but which instead rank as two of the most memorable portrayals I have ever seen.

Gavin Yap has been described as "stiff" in a few of the reviews I've read, but personally speaking, I didn't notice any such thing. In fact, during the post-show dialogue, someone asked about this particular aspect of his performance, and he confirmed that it was a conscious decision. Anyway, those of you who've seen Gavin in The Importance of Being Earnest and Fat Pig will no doubt agree that "stiff" isn't his style. And besides, the last 15 minutes of the play highlight Ken's true strength to full effect, and it is glorious. Gavin continues to impress me, and I look forward to his next theatrical project - a play titled Tribes with Pangdemonium in 2015.

Many kudos to director Samantha Scott-Blackhall, whose work I watched for the very first time that day. During the post-show Q&A, she spoke about the research that went into the production, and her dedication is truly admirable. The play was expertly paced, the performances nuanced yet powerful. One must never underestimate the importance of the director - something I learned after watching The Realistic Joneses on Broadway a few months ago, in which 4 Hollywood stars languished due to weak direction.

It was also very heartening to see a packed studio that afternoon ( with a few shows selling out during its short 4-day run ). Questions posed during the dialogue were insightful, and the director and cast's enthusiastic participation is most appreciated.

Blank Space Theatre has won over a new fan! Hopefully, I will be able to catch its future productions. Keep up the excellent work. :)

The Pillowman by Couch Theatre 17/7/14

Couch Theatre returns with their second production, Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, a black comedy police procedural where writer Katurian (Lim Shien Hian) is accused of the murder of several children, and is interrogated by detectives Tupolski (Uday Duggal) and Ariel (Ziyad Bagharib). Also involved is his invalid brother Michal (Shrey Bhargava) and Katurian's gruesome short stories and everyone's problem childhoods.

I didn't watch SRT's 2008 production, but I did read the script beforehand, and was drawn to its powerful language, vivid and often clever stories and its dark and witty concept.Yet, the script itself is not without its problems, often bogging down the audience with lengthy and sometimes unecessary dialogue. The Katurian/Michal scene borders on frustrating, and you'd wish one of them died in the middle of the scene, because that scene just felt like it went on forever, without truly establishing a strong brotherly bond between the two.

Of course, this may not actually be a script problem, but perhaps a miscasting of Shien Hian as Katurian. Having seen Shien Hian act before, he is by no means an incapable actor. However, Katurian is perhaps a role better suited for someone else. As the main character who has gone through a particularly troubled childhood and ending up writing disturbing, dark stories, one would imagine him to be a little more off the rocker, and having some nervous tics of some sort, which was absent in this production. I also often found myself drifting off when he narrated stories, because of his voice, which seemed to hit the emphases in all the wrong places. I could never really get into the idea that Katurian was that into his stories, and overall, he lacked presence. I'm impressed by the number of lines he memorized and the physical beatings endured onstage, but that's not enough. Ziyad as Ariel was also problematic for me, as he put on an accent that often made him swallow his words, and some of his actions onstage seemed robotic and awkward. Overall, he felt less like a bad cop than an actor who was turning on and turning off the rage button as and when required. It felt more forced than natural, and that was very off putting. Perhaps this was a directorial problem that could have been better handled if he'd been asked to be more natural onstage.

Shrey as Michal was alright. Getting bogged down by his long, tedious duologue with Katurian didn't help though, and it contributed to his character appearing more irritating than sympathetic. The acting lacked a certain depth and dimension, and Shrey could have added an air of mystery as opposed to a standard invalid brother. I didn't want to like Michal at all, because after a while, he just got on my nerves after I tried really hard to find something likeable about him. Shrey embodied the playful, unassuming aspect of Michal, however, did not pinpoint the bits where he could have milked the character for his potential darkness and sinister-ness, leaving the character flat and a caricature.

However, credit must be given where it's due, and Pillowman's standout players are Uday Duggal as detective Tupolski and the gorgeously handpainted mural inspired by graffitti art. Uday's acting reminds me heavily of Adrian Pang's, and his demeanour and style carries a certain maturityand awareness that is lacking in the other 3 actors. As Tupolski, he knew how to milk his lines for maximum audience response and was a joy to watch onstage, whether intentionally or not, for both the humour and his interactions with the other actors onstage. The set was amazing, no question about it, with a sparse grey cell overshadowed by a tall wall looming over the audience, filled with gorgeously painted murals by artist Seet Yun Teng, depicting the stories featured in Pillowman (minus the Pillowman himself, which looked less like a pillowman and more like the Stay-Puft man from Ghostbusters). The murals were mesmerizing, and while relating to the overall theme of the play itself, reminding me of the Berlin wall and fascist/totalitarian governance, still did not distract the audience too much from the main action happening onstage.

Also worth mentioning would be the two story sequences acted out onstage by Cheryl Foo, Salif Hardie and Hanis Nazierah. The sequences were smooth and visually impactful, and the direction here was wonderful, particularly Hanis as a spritely, energetic and rebellious young girl slowly broken into submission, almost like watching a dance performance. Cheryl played the mother roles in the sequences, and I admit that if anyone ever does a production of Neil Gaiman's Coraline, she'd be the first person I want to see as The Other Mother (if you don't get the reference, ignore me). Cheryl deliciously works her way around as a creepy, otherworldly maternal figure, and her facial expressions, ranging from sinister-ly sweet to sneering, are spot on.

Following on the heels of SRT's 2008 production, starring theatre stalwarts like Adrian Pang, is certainly a daunting prospect. The problem with plays about adults unfortunately, is that despite theatre's ability to create a suspension of disbelief, ultimately, some plays do require adults to take on the roles, and when the cast is unable to look adult and bring that age to stage, the illusion is broken, and the play comes off as stuck in a school drama club. No doubt these are some talented actors, and there were times where the cast came together and hit all the right notes, but perhaps they flew just a little too close to the sun and fell flat, for a number of scenes. Perhaps the problem here was that the actors were directed to play straight to the script, and lacked multi-dimensionality, ending up as flat archetypes rather than fully fleshed out characters (save for Uday). The pacing also faced several problems, with about half the first scene feeling like the actors were rushing through it, and the entire second scene feeling more than a little too long.

I'm glad that Couch is going strong and attempted to challenge themselves with this piece, which was a lot more accessible than last year's Melancholy Play, so perhaps their next production in December will hit the closer to the mark, with an original script and changeup in direction. Kudos to the effort and it's wonderful to see young theatre companies get serious about it and not choose to just 'stop at one'.

JustWatchLah Rating: 3/5

Red by Blank Space Theatre 10/7/14



Red is a thinly veiled discursion on art and the artist's intent framed by the working relationship between abstract artist Mark Rothko and his assistant. Rothko has been tasked to paint some murals for a swanky new restaurant, gets paid a hefty sum, and has to decide whether or not it's worth it to sacrifice artistic integrity for money (the answer is apparently no).

It's an interesting premise, with Ken (played by a surprisingly fiesty Gavin Yap, last seen in Pangdemonium!'s Fat Pig) as the foil to Daniel Jenkins' Mark Rothko. Rothko puts up a strong front, fiercely putting down Ken and his idealistic young artist point of view and lauding his works of genius. Daniel Jenkins is one of those actors who seems able to transform into literally any and every role. (though not as adept as some, I'm looking at you Antonio!) Although there are no vocal records of Mark Rothko, Jenkins' interpretation of Rothko impressed me, playing a fierce, convicted artist, with his own share of unvoiced insecurities. Gavin Yap did a decent job as Ken as well, although he appeared a little stiff at the start, he quickly grew more likeable as the play progressed, and I'm convinced of his abilities and potential as an actor in the local scene.

There's no question why the script won its share of Tony awards; it's energetic, hits the humorous and deep moments at all the right notes, and despite the characters acting as the vessel for the argument, they have still been well fleshed out by their lines and actions, with little idiosyncrasies and drama that adds humanity and depth.

In terms of direction, I enjoyed the sequence where both actors were painting the blank canvas red. It doesn't actually say much, but the dynamic action coupled with the music was pretty fun to watch.

I thought the immersive set by Wong Chee Wai was gorgeous, transforming the entire Esplanade Theatre Studio into a literal art studio, with talls walls and actual abstract art pieces hung all around. With the black box setting and 2 man cast, it creates a sense of intimacy with the audience and really allowed for them to focus on the play and the arguments at hand.

Overall, a simple enough setup with a strong cast and interesting enough plot to keep you on the edge of your seat and hanging on to the argument. There's a conclusion to it all though, and you'll be happy to know that art wins out in the end.


JustWatchLah Rating: 3.75/5

July 8, 2014

Dark Room x8 by Edith Podesta 5/7/14 (Matinee)

Adapted from interviews Podesta conducted with inmates and ex-inmates amounting to over 16 hours long, Dark Room is yet another play in the increasingly popular 'interview style' scripts, and manages to tell a complete recollection of the experience of a short term prison stay, from arrest to release.

Theatre has always been about giving a voice to the unheard in society, and Dark Room does this with aplomb. At times darkly humorous and others deeply reflective, the interviews, strung together by the narrative of eight inmates housed in a 5m by 5m cell, 23 hours a day, are unerringly real and frank. One can't help but wonder how much artistic license was taken with the script. If anything, when compared to characters from Square Moon (2013) or Gemuk Girls (2008), the men in Dark Room feel like much more relatable human beings (though Gemuk Girls did a pretty darn good job of making me cry). These are men who were jailed not for political purposes, but because they actually consciously carried out a crime. This is a fact that stayed with me throughout the play, and kept thinking about every time I felt sorry for them, and it tears you apart not knowing how you should feel for these people.

The script's strengths lie in the unexpected tender moments between the men. Much of the script is told in monologue, and any interaction between men only to show an aspect of prison life. There is no part of the script that actually involves them speaking to each other, and in this sense, you get an intense feeling of solitude from the men while they address us individually. Coming into prison as an individual, bonds are formed with the other inmates, and then leaving, again as an individual. There is a constant sense of claustrophobia as the interviewees describe the constraints of the area and living conditions, though you never get the impression of actual suffering. This is not Oz, where prisoners plot against each other and end up in fights and dropping the soap leads to other things.

The minimalist set works well to recreate the prison environment and the descriptions from the interviewees alone are enough to carry the audience's imagination where the play needs it to. Edith Podesta once again proves her directing prowess with simple but effective direction and choreography that echoes the monotony and sparse nature of prison life. The new trend of using unexpected lighting in recycled materials works like a charm here, with the lights set up in plastic boxes, casting an alien glow across the stage during blackouts. 

I particularly enjoyed how despite there being eight distinct characters, all the dialogue was so well interwoven that it felt like a single person's narrative as opposed to a disparate group of people. The flow was great and the actors, most of them veterans, carried the characters well (who doesn't love Timothy Nga playing the token gay character?).


I'd love to see Dark Room adapted into a full scale production and gain a greater audience-ship. For what it's worth, Dark Room has certainly cast new light on the plight and experiences of Singaporean inmates.