Time Out Singapore: ‘Tribes’ Review

2 Jun 2015: Pangdemonium’s latest offering gives a voice to the deaf community while keeping things funny and lighthearted

★★★★☆

Photo: Crispian Chan

Photo: Crispian Chan

Over the last couple of years, Pangdemonium has been building a reputation for being a company unafraid to stage plays that deal with difficult issues. But with English playwright Nina Raine’s award-winning play Tribes, the cast and crew take things up a notch and achieve something truly hard-hitting, comical, and tender at the same time.

The play opens with a barrage of swear words as Christopher (Adrian Pang), his wife Beth (Susan Tordoff), their son Daniel (Gavin Yap) and daughter Ruth (Frances Lee) hurl barbs at one another over dinner. No one takes it too personally – that’s just the way they are. Meanwhile, the couple’s other son, the hearing-impaired Billy (Thomas Pang), sits quietly. He tries hard to follow the conversations flying over his head like missiles, but is usually brushed off with a ‘nothing, Billy’ when he asks what everyone’s fussing about.

It takes a while to get used to this high-strung family. Most of the first act is loud and brash, and with it comes a bit of over-acting as the characters attempt to make it clear that Daniel is a whiny 20-something, Ruth is an emotional wreck, Mum is exasperated and Dad is an a**hole.

In those early scenes, the characters seem to be mere caricatures who provide laughs but little depth, and the constant F-bombs soon start to feel as though they’re dropped for the sake of it. But then Billy’s girlfriend, Sylvia (Ethel Yap), enters the household, and her sweetness sparks a change in everyone. Not only does she give Billy a voice – quite literally by encouraging him to learn how to sign, as she’s on her way to becoming deaf, too – she also brings out a softer side to his rowdy family.

The cast shines after this point. They flesh out their characters well and show that beneath their colourful language are people who care for one another. Thomas deserves special mention: he’s making his professional debut with Tribes, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell from his nuanced portrayal of the sweet yet isolated Billy. Ethel is another outstanding actor – she’s able to convincingly balance Sylvia’s bitterness and frustration about losing her hearing with her inherently loving nature.

Thanks to Tracie Pang’s expert direction, watching this group of actors is, indeed, like catching a glimpse of a tribe. We may not always agree – or even fathom – their way of dealing with things, but the chemistry that binds them together is apparent. And it doesn’t hurt that the set is a sight to behold. It may not be as loud or visually complicated as those in a few of Pangdemonium’s other shows, but Wong Chee Wai’s design nonetheless provides, in its own quiet way, a cosy backdrop for this dysfunctional family.

It’s evident the production achieves what it set out to do: give a voice and soul to a community that is largely ignored by the public. There are a lot of words that get tossed around here – either hilarious or hurtful – but by the time the curtain falls, we find that even when speech is taken away, so much can still be said.

Time Out Singapore: The Cast of ‘Tribes’

18 May 2015: You can argue that all families are dysfunctional, but the one in Pangdemonium’s latest production, ‘Tribes’, might just take the cake. Gwen Pew meets the clan

Tribes

Christopher (played by Adrian Pang)

Age 55 and proud of it
Occupation Writer
Personality People say I’m pompous, pretentious, prejudiced and basically a prat, but they’re just being nice.
Life goal To get my bloody kids to get jobs and move out of my house.
My biggest problem My older son Dan is too dumb to realise that he’ll never be a writer, my daughter Ruth is too deaf to realise she’ll never make it as an opera singer, and my younger son Billy is too blind to see that he’s got the brightest future – and he’s the one who’s actually really deaf!
Fun fact I am learning to speak Mandarin and I know how to say ‘Get a bloody job, you useless bugger!’ – although I have a feeling that last bit gets lost in translation.
My best line ‘He’s a c**t!’

Beth (played by Susan Tordoff)

Age 60
Occupation Aspiring writer
Personality Calm with an edge of exasperation.
Life goal To be permanently calm and finish my book.
My biggest problem My husband, and my kids being back at home in spite of the fact that they had all moved away (which is also secretly my greatest pleasure).
Fun fact I play the ukulele.
My best line ‘People do things for the people they love.’

Daniel (played by Gavin Yap)

Age 27
Occupation I don’t see why that should matter. I mean, what do you do? Is it important? Didn’t freaking think so.
Personality Some people might call me self-absorbed, crude, vulgar, perverted, bitter even. But personally, I think I’m just a brilliant human being.
Life goal To get a blowjob from Helen Mirren. Or maybe Kristin Scott Thomas. I don’t know, they tend to change. I wouldn’t mind writing a book, either. Maybe win a Pulitzer…
My biggest problem I live with my family.
Fun fact I can fart the theme song of EastEnders.
My best line ‘I’m sorry, something about your voice, I just stopped listening.’

Ruth (played by Frances Lee)

Age 24
Occupation Aspiring opera singer
Personality I’m a hopeless romantic. I live for the stage, and I live for love. And I would die for love.
Life goal To star in Puccini’s La Boheme at London’s Royal Opera House. I’m working on my Italian and French as we speak.
My biggest problem I actually cannot stand my family. They do not understand me, and aren’t even remotely supportive of what I could achieve as an opera singer.
Fun fact Fun? Okay. My love life is in shambles, my family is in shambles, and my career is honestly not taking off as fast as it should be. Besides that, I’m having fun.
My best line ‘Dan. I want my pen back. I know you stole it, you thieving little sh*t.’

Billy (played by Thomas Pang)

Age 22 going on 23
Occupation University graduate. Unemployed for the time being, but looking.
Personality Uh… Yellow? Strawberry? I dunno. People say I’m a good listener.
Life goal To be a film director.
My biggest problem Missed opportunities. It’s sometimes hard to communicate with people who don’t or won’t listen. As in, people who don’t work as a team, or even just small things.
Fun fact I can eat peanut butter and jam with anything. Dare me.
My best line ‘When I met her, something just clicked in my head. It was like a light being lit in my mind.’

Sylvia (played by Ethel Yap)

Age Late 20s
Occupation Events organiser at a charity for the hearing impaired
Personality Outspoken, opinionated, well-read, witty, vibrant and fiercely independent.
Life goal To achieve my fullest potential before my hearing loss completely consumes me.
My biggest problem My gradual hearing loss, and potential in-laws who are completely crazy.
Fun fact I am a pretty accomplished pianist. Or I used to be, at least.
My best line ‘I’m not deaf yet, though. Just… in denial.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Circle Mirror Transformation’ Review

Gwen Pew had bags of fun at Pangdemonium’s first play of the year, where she got to go on a six-week journey – condensed into 90 minutes – with a cast of colourful characters at a community centre acting class

★★★★☆

Circle Mirror Transformation

Photo: Crispian Chan

 

6 Feb 2015: The last time we saw a Pangdemonium production, it was one that revolved around a paedophile-murderer. But as powerful a piece of theatre as Frozen was, we’re also grateful to be able to sit back and let the laughter ripple through our bellies at their current show, American playwright Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation. It is, of course, a very different kind of play – nobody dies, for starters – but the performance is no less impressive, and beautifully demonstrates just how versatile the company is.

Here, we’re taken to an acting class at a community centre in Vermont, America, led by a kind, hippie lady called Marty (Neo Swee Lin). We join her four students as they embark on a six-week course, and get to know them as they get to know each other: the recently divorced carpenter Schultz (Adrian Pang), recently single actress Theresa (Nikki Muller), moody high schooler Lauren (Selma Alkaff), and Marty’s happy-go-lucky husband, James (Daniel Jenkins). Plenty of hilarity ensues as they start playing acting games like conveying meaning using only varying tones of one word, or reconstructing someone’s childhood bedroom by taking on the role of furniture and trees. In between the laughs, however, the cracks in each of their lives start to show through.

That helps to breathe a third dimensional backstory into the characters, and the cast is more than capable to take them on. All five of them embodied their roles with such ease and naturalness that it almost feels like the play was written specifically for these actors. From the awkward shyness they felt during the first week of class to the unspoken bond that had formed between them by the sixth week, they brought the whole spectrum of emotions to life. Pang, as usual, has his comedic timing down pat, while Muller encapsulates the confident woman with deep trust issues brilliantly. The old-couple chemistry between Neo and Jenkins is great to watch, and we could hardly tell that it’s Alkaff professional stage debut with her stellar performance as the emo, but ultimately lovely, Lauren.

The only problem we have with it is that we’re left wishing that the script had given the actors more to work with. By the end, we’re just getting to understand the weight of their baggage – all of them are complicated, and some hint at very dark things indeed – but they’re never explained fully enough to really make an impact, or a point. We’re unsure what the take away is after all the revelation, which is a shame as the characters are so fascinating and intricately developed. Yes, we appreciate the open ending, but we would have loved for the plot to let us delve deeper into the characters’ personal worlds – worlds that the cast clearly invested a lot of time in fleshing out during rehearsal.

Acting aside, Wong Chee Wai’s simple set is functional, but it’s strongest when combined with James Tan’s lighting and Brian Gothong Tan’s multimedia design in the final scene. We also never get to find out much about the American life outside the acting class, and Pangdemonium wisely didn’t make an attempt to localise it – they never do – but perhaps that’s not the point of the play, because ultimately it’s more about what it means to be human, regardless of where you are. So go, and laugh, and appreciate the dialogue and the sheer prowess of the actors. The show runs on for an hour and a half and there’s no intermission, but don’t worry, you’ll be in very good company.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Gruesome Playground Injuries’ Preview (Alan Wong)

Making his local stage debut in this month’s Gruesome Playground Injuries – Pangdemonium!’s third production (this one also by a Pulitzer finalist, Rajiv Joseph) – the California-born Wong is one of two actors in the show, which follows his character Doug’s love affair with Kayleen (played by Seong Hui Xuan) from age eight to 37. Here, Gwen Pew learns a bit more about the handsome actor.

Alan Wong. Image courtesy of Pangdemonium! Productions.

Alan Wong plays the clumsy, accident-prone Doug in Gruesome Playground Injuries. Image courtesy of Pangdemonium! Productions.

5 Nov 2013:

1

When Wong decided that he wanted to explore opportunities in Asia, he had initially moved to Hong Kong, but ‘soon realised that Hong Kong didn’t have many English-speaking opportunities,’ he says. ‘After an audition in Singapore, I found all the opportunites I needed.’

2

He’s also appeared on US TV shows such as Hannah Montana, but his favourite art form is still theatre: ‘I love the singular moment of experience that theatre creates. Movies and television shows can be watched at any time. But a stage performance only happens once. The next performance will never be the same as the last. That’s pretty magical. That’s what I love.’

3

He’s looking to act more, but his current day job is being a VJ on MTV Asia, which he started in March after moving here: ‘As of now, my focus is onGruesome and hosting The MTV Show,’ he says.

4

Despite his experience, he’s a bit nervous about his local stage debut: ‘I’m always at least a little nervous about everything I do, but I think nerves are important. They can either make or break you. The trick is to use them to serve your performance and not diminish it. But since this is the first time anyone in Singapore has seen me act and not host, I’ll admit there are a few extra nerves.’

5

In Gruesome, his character is a bit accident-prone [hence the title]: ‘Doug has been a really fun character to explore so far. He has a kind soul and cares a great deal for Kayleen, but he isn’t exactly the smartest tool in the shed. He’s not stupid, though, he just lacks a little common sense. He spends much of the play accidentally hurting himself severely.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Gruesome Playground Injuries’ Preview (Seong Hui Xuan)

Pangdemonium! Productions stages Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer-nominated play Gruesome Playground Injuries as their third and final show of the year. Gwen Pew speaks to Seong Hui Xuan to find out more about her character, Kayleen.

Seong Hui Xuan and Alan Wong gets dizzy as they flit between the 30 years of their characters' lives. Image courtesy of Pangdemonium! Productions.

Seong Hui Xuan and Alan Wong get dizzy as they flit between the 30 years of their characters’ lives. Image courtesy of Pangdemonium! Productions.

30 Oct 2013: 

Tell us a little bit about your character, Kaylene.
Kaylene is someone who shies away from people and finds herself alone a lot of the time. She doesn’t have many people in her life who care about her. Doug is the exception. She comes from a broken family and doesn’t have / hasn’t had a happy childhood at all, and is deeply insecure about many things, which causes her many emotional and psychological problems in later life.

How did you mentally – and physically – prepare yourself for the role?
Well, I’m still preparing and researching the place, the different time periods, kids of different ages, the specific disorders that Kaylene has. It’s an on-going process I think.

How are the rehearsals going so far?
It’s going great! Starting rehearsals for a new project is always exciting because it’s a brand new journey, a blank canvas, and the possibilities are out there to be discovered.

Are you quite a squeamish person?
Not at all. Give me fake blood and cool wounds any day!

Do you relate to Kaylene in any way?
Definitely. In a far less extreme way than Kayleen, I never really felt like I belonged at school – I wasn’t one of the popular kids, or the geniuses, or even the rebellious kids. I had friends, but I always somehow felt alone and lost for the most part. So I can empathise with Kayleen’s struggles in that respect.

You and Alan are the only cast members for the play – what are some of the challenges?
Primarily I think sustaining the energy that’s needed to carry the show. It’s like playing soccer with only two people on your team – we’ll just have to work that much harder. But it will be crazy fun and I love a good challenge!

If you were to describe the play in three words, what would they be?
Funny, twisted, and strangely sweet.