written, directed and performed by Isaac Tan & Vishnucharan Naidu
Oh dear. When watching pieces staged by independent youth groups, I make it a point to remain encouraging and non-critical - after all, the effort put in to bring an idea from page to stage is already tremendous. However, 9 squares made a recurrent point to remind me that they were amateurs, and that was terrifying.
Rushing down to the play venue from the hospital and gobbling down random sandwiches/salads at Goodman Arts Centre, I was displeased when house only closed at 7.50 pm (for a show scheduled at 7.30 pm). The audience demographics was also the kind that I feared most - predominantly lower secondary school boys.
The first play "Gin Nah" had an interesting concept. Anchored by Isaac Tan's multiple persona, the play aimed to send the grand message of "letting your children be what they want, not what you want". The play consisted some tongue-in-cheek poke-fun of certain character stereotypes and also allowed Isaac Tan to demonstrate his impersonations to a decent competence.
Sadly, the play rarely progressed beyond that. It soon became a random amalgam of rants, often going off-point for the sake of humor. While Isaac Tan's quick responses to annoying audience comments (sigh. kids) were somewhat impressive, I could not forgive how poorly rehearsed the lines were and the number of times he had to impromptu something on stage. Granted that he's the playwright, but if he couldn't respect his own script enough to commit it to memory, then I couldn't too as an audience. The most appalling scene was the PRC student with translator segment - both actors went on stage with script! To aggravate matters, the pauses for translations were not rehearsed and we often had the translator saying things before the Chinese lines were delivered! (And Isaac added a line, "oh this script is not well written" in jest - oh the horror.) Isaac Tan also needs to break out of his pet phrases of "you know right" (there were a few others but I cannot remember off hand) - it punctuated his lines at weird junctures. A problem that could be solved with faithful diligence to stick to the script. And then suddenly at the end, Isaac Tan appeared as himself to try to shove a "central message" to the audience. That was truly out of the blue.
Overall, it was evident that the piece was not well rehearsed and it pained me to see an aspiring practitioner dare to stage an incomplete work.
(p.s. be careful with named steorotypes- they can rub off your audience in the wrong way. bitching about RI boys was...)
After surviving the first 45 minutes of Gin Nah, Navarasa at least started promptly after the 9-minute interval. It started with a really promising premise, a man traveling to Europe found with 9 pair of shoes in his luggage (the staging was too far downstage. half the audience could not see what was in the luggage!) Unfortunately, it never advanced any more than its opening scene.
Performed in a concept similar to Gin Nah (I suspect that's what these students were trained in school), Navasara also took the form of a collection of 9 scenes trying to prove a central theme. Vishnucharan Naidu was evidently better rehearsed in this play and I did not notice any fumbling of the lines (commendable!) What didn't engage me was the direction of the play. Very similar to Gin Nah, these 9 short scenes also ran tangential to the (lacking) central theme.
Vishnucharan Naidu clearly spent a lot of effort in his role. The lines were delivered smoothly and the dance was impactful. However, certain basic theatrical rules were blatantly flouted e.g. shouting through the emotional lines - too jarring and loses the impact; voice projection during the quiet speeches was inaudible. The disregard for simple theatrical practices made me wonder if it was too blinding for the directors to be actors as well?
The good thing about 9 squares was the expectation management it offered the audience. I found myself counting down to the number of scenes left.
I know I said I try to be encouraging to youth groups. After all, they have done something which I have always dreamed of doing but never had the courage to. In many ways, they are already more successful than me. But I always believe that as a new group, you should always try to win the audience by performing "safe pieces" i.e. script with a naturalistic storyline and easy to follow theme. When you create a new piece and pitch yourself to do abstract/stylized pieces and compete with the professionals, it is easy to fail by sheer comparison. On top of that, the lack of rehearsals and the disregard the actors (who were the directors and playwrights themselves) for the production made the production really upsetting.
To assign a score to the production would really be too harsh. We should perhaps view it as a group of friends coming together to have fun and not truly a professional piece to be compared with the rest.