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.

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Time Out Singapore: ‘Persuant’ Preview

Jonathan Lim’s newest production is a musical dedicated to Singapore’s youth – the writer, director, actor and comedian talks to Gwen Pew a not-too-distant Singapore, where dreams have been outlawed.

Jonathan Lim

Jonathan Lim

8 May 2013: When the Singapore Lyric Opera decided to make its first foray into youth musicals, they couldn’t have found a better person to bring on board than the local director, writer, actor and comedian Jonathan Lim, who is known for being the creator of parody sketch series Chestnuts.

How did you come up with the idea of Pursuant?
I think it’s a story I’ve been waiting to tell, ever since I became aware of two things: that our country is really changing and the next generation needs to have a vision to inspire them; and that our youth are in danger of becoming too focussed on KPIs rather than dreams. When I was asked to write something new and local featuring the youths, I immediately leapt at the chance to send out a challenge, a call to action – this show dares the youths of Singapore to dream big and to pursue those dreams passionately.

The setting is not unlike Orwell’s 1984 – was that an important influence?
Not directly. The SingaCorp we’ve created is not terminally dystopian and certainly nowhere as bleak as Orwell’s imagined future. We are Singapore, after all. We’ll never become a grim and grimy city. We will always be slick and profitable. Too much so, perhaps. It’s very virtual, our SingaCorp. There is no wear and tear when everything is digital. It is the world beyond Google glasses and e-books, bio-tagging and QR coding. It’s inspired as much byMinority Report and Wall-E as it is by George Orwell. And it’s not truly totalitarian – the real horror is that everyone buys into the country’s master agenda, the way it is in a corporation. The pursuit of prosperity and progress has become the idée fixe. In fact, it is extremely recognisable; It’s only a decade away and we are halfway there! This is what disturbs me the most – that our darkest social fears are almost reality already.

Orwell wrote 1984 in relation to the Cold War. Is there any special relevance of showing Pursuant in Singapore at this time?
Is it post-GE11 Singapore – a country wondering where change will come from and who will lead it? Is it the Singapore Conversation – desperately trying to define (or redefine) what our country can and should mean? But events like these only serve as reminders of questions we should always have been asking ourselves but have forgotten to; and every needful reminder is a timely one.

How long did it take you to write the script?
The idea took a while to take shape – I was dreaming about it for half of 2012. But once I started seeing it in my mind and hearing the words, the scenes fell into place within a few months. In some cases, the lyrics came first and the scene took shape around it. In other scenes, the songs only made sense after the scene achieved full detail.

Why did you choose to make it a musical instead of a straight play?
Musically, the show is a hybrid – there are songs that follow the musical theatre mould and songs that draw their inspiration from operatic forms. The rest of the score also dances between classical music and contemporary film scoring. A musical is more appealing and accessible to a wider audience – and I wanted to share this with as wide an audience as possible, both young and old It’s easier to attract families to a musical than to a play, and kids will enjoy songs more than dialogue. The music and songs also give wings to many of the sentiments in the story. Not everyone will appreciate a soliloquy, but everyone loves a moving ballad.

Is Pursuant one of your more ambitious projects?
Musicals are always ambitious; it’s the nature of the beast and Pursuant is additionally challenging because of the mixed community it draws together – the theatre professionals, talented youths and the SLO children’s choir. Also, it’s an ongoing challenge to maintain the right balance between opera, musical and popular music and between commentary and parable, satire and dream. At the heart of most of my work, there is the same longing, which is to connect with the audience as frankly, truthfully and enjoyably as possible. The comedy I do is always brutally honest, however wacky it is and the stories I like to tell are very homegrown and blunt, yet inspirational and, yes, a bit sentimental. I think society needs more affection and passion and I try to let those things drive my work.

What are some of your favourite lines from the play?
The Old Man who once inspired the nation says, ‘It’s only your dream if YOU pursue it. With your heart and soul. Not with obedience.’ And one of my favourite lyrics is from a song called ‘Grandfather’s Road’: ‘Are you ready to shoulder your forefather’s load? Are you worthy to walk your grandfather’s road?’

If the audience were to take away one thing from the show, what should it be?
That dreaming is the only way to shape the future and Singapore’s future lies in our children’s dreams.

Time Out Singapore: Julia Abueva

At 17, Julie Abueva has already performed in musicals and entertained top dignitaries like Barrack Obama. Gwen Pew catches up with the Manila-born, Singapore-raised talent as she prepares for her first non-singing role in the French whodunit play 8 Women.

Julia Abueva. Photo courtesy of Sing'Theatre.

Julia Abueva. Photo courtesy of Sing’Theatre.

18 Mar 2013: She’s only a year away from finishing high school, but the Manila-born, Singapore-raised 17-year-old singing sensation Julia Abueva has already earned quite a few impressive feathers in her hat. After being discovered ten years ago by local singer Cat Ong, Abueva has performed in front of Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong and other foreign heads of state, including US President Obama. She’s also shared the stage with multi-award-winning Filipina songstress Lea Salonga (the singing voice of princess Jasmine inAladdin), and was invited to perform on The Oprah Winfrey Show as one of the most talented kids in the world at the age of 12 – although she had to turn down the opportunity as the episode coincided with her first sold-out solo concert at the Esplanade here in Singapore.

Abueva has previously been involved in several local musicals, including Into the Woods and Spring Awakening, but she will be making her debut performance in a non-singing role this month in Sing Theatre’s production of8 Women, the darkly funny whodunit (immortalised in the 2002 French movie starring Isabelle Huppert and Catherine Deneuve) about the murder of a lord in a mansion – and the eight women in the house who might have done the deed.

She plays Catherine, the feisty 15-year-old daughter of the murder victim, alongside local theatre veterans such as DBS Life! Theatre Award winner Tan Kheng Hua and Neo Swee Lin – both from the popular TV series Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd – who play the murdered man’s wife and mother-in-law respectively.

‘I have to admit that my comfort zone has always been music because it helps me “feel” more. Standing on stage without music will be a very new experience but I’m very excited,’ says Abueva, although she also notes many similarities between acting in a musical and in a straight play, such as the approach she takes to understanding her character. ‘The first thing I do is read the script to understand the story,’ she explains. ‘Then I try to imagine my character beyond the script – such as what songs she would listen to, what her favourite book is – and basically create a whole person in my head, because I can then understand her better and make the character more truthful.’

While Abueva admits that it does get difficult to juggle homework with rehearsals – she attends the Singapore American School and maintains the regular 11th grade curriculum – she believes it’s worth it and has big dreams for the future. ‘Of course I need an education, but I also know that I need to take advantage of opportunities that come my way,’ she concludes. ‘I’ve started to write my own songs so I want to start getting my music out there. I also dream of being on Broadway or West End someday. That’s still my biggest dream.’