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: 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: ‘The Tempest’ Review

11 May 2015: Shakespeare in the Park returns for its seventh edition. Gwen Pew shares her thoughts on the production

★★★☆☆

Photo: Watson Lau

Photo: Watson Lau

The final rays of the sun fade into black. Moths, flies, bats and other creatures of the night emerge from the trees and flutter around spotlights. The odd pair of headlights blinks in the distance, then disappears.

At the front of the Fort Canning Park lawn, a huge open book towers over the audience on picnic mats, reminding us of the famous stage used in the 1999 performance of Verdi’s A Masked Ball at the Bregenz Festival in Austria. The book’s pages are covered in symbols and scribbles like a Da Vinci notebook, and enticingly lit. Combine all these elements and it seems like the perfect setting for the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s seventh edition of Shakespeare in the Park, The Tempest.

The story takes place on a magical island ‘full of noises, strange sounds and sweet melodies’. There, the wizardly Prospero (Simon Robson) – the rightful duke of Milan who was cast to sea by his usurping brother, Antonio (Matt Grey) and the conspiring Alonso, king of Naples (Ian Shaw) – has been living with his daughter, Miranda (Julie Wee), for the past 12 years. When Antonio and Alonso’s ship passes by the island one fateful day, Prospero sets his spirit servant, Ariel (Ann Lek), to stir up a storm that will safely bring everyone on board to shore. His plan: confront them and their past wrongdoings.

Did the production soar to the heights that we had hoped for? Sort of, but not quite. It’s enjoyable enough, but the sense of wonder wanes, and we never feel like we truly entered a ‘brave new world’. The set, as pretty as it is, does not serve much of a purpose, and quickly loses its appeal. The actors, likewise, deliver their lines as directed, but most of them don’t do justice to the beauty of the verses.

Robson’s Prospero, for instance, doesn’t come across as someone we should either pity or fear, while the chemistry between Wee’s Miranda and Timothy Wan’s Ferdinand – as fickle as their love-at-first-sight relationship may be – fizzles. The exceptions are Theo Ogundipe, who conveys with zest both the depravity and the tragedy of the deformed monster Caliban, and Daniel Jenkins and Shane Mardjuki, who make a great pair of drunken jesters as Stephano and Trinculo, respectively.

A couple of scenes are visually interesting – such as Ariel dancing between the massive blue cloth of a stormy ocean, or her taking the form of a gigantic bright red harpy to reprimand the usurpers – but they are, sadly, few and far between.

Overall, The Tempest is not much of a spectacle. It doesn’t stand out as a particularly bad performance, but it’s certainly not one of the company’s best, either. And yet, as one of the handful of annual events to encourage people to go to the park and enjoy an evening of literature under the stars, it serves its purpose.

Time Out Singapore: Paul Lucas

20 Apr 2015: It’s a play that’s adapted from an Alfred Hitchcock movie, which was in turn based on a 1915 novel by John Buchan. We are, of course, talking about the deliciously British farce that is The 39 Steps.

This year is the centenary of the publication of the original book – yes, there is more happening in the world than just SG50 – and local company Asylum Theatre is staging the play here. Four Singapore-based actors are set to take on over 100 roles between them, bringing the audience on a journey into a world of espionage, beautiful women, and dark, dark secrets. One of the cast members, Paul Lucas, tells Gwen Pew more.

Photo: Asylum Theatre

Photo: Asylum Theatre

Lucas first came across The 39 Steps in London: ‘Some years ago, I went to see the play on the West End and I was a hundred percent entertained by its slapstick, cartoon-like comic style. I’ve loved the show ever since.’

He will be taking on about 13 roles in the upcoming production: ‘That’s a whole lotta roles in one night, lemme tell ya!’

His favourite role is actually three crazy roles combined into one: ‘What do I mean by that, you ask? Come see the show to find out.’

One of the most difficult things about his roles is that he has to pick up a range of English and Scottish accents: ‘It’s not easy for a West Coast American boy from Seattle. The Scottish accents are my greatest challenge, but because The 39 Steps is a farce and a fast-paced romp, I’m pretty sure the audience won’t notice – or even care about – any “little inaccuracies” that I may stumble upon! The nature of the show is complete and utter wackiness, which almost begs the actors to struggle with multiple roles and accents – it only makes it funnier.’

He’s got more projects lined up for the rest of the year: ‘I do the occasional commercial, film, cartoon voice or TV show, but aside from those, I will appear in Holiday in My Head – also by Asylum Theatre – at the Drama Centre in November and December. It’s another fun, light-hearted comedy.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Ragnarok’ Review

17 Apr 2015: Skinned Knee Production’s show takes us to some pretty dark, dirty places within the LGBT community, but Gwen Pew appreciates that it dared to go all the way

★★★★☆

Ragnarok

We’ve been to our fair share of productions that claim they will shock, and be dark, and talk about taboo subjects. Most of them end up being about as gritty as a smooth vanilla ice cream cone on a balmy summer’s day, but Ragnarok follows the talk through with actual action – plenty of it, too – and takes us all the way to the darkest corners of the LGBT community. Presented by Skinned Knee Productions, the play’s ending is somewhat predictable, and the journey there is not a comfortable one, but it does bring something refreshingly different to the local stage.

Upon entering The Substation’s black box theatre, we realised that we had walked straight into Asgard, a tacky gay club that borrowed its name from the home to the Norse gods. The show’s title, likewise, is a reference taken from Norse mythology – Ragnarok is a sort of doomsday that results in the death of the gods and the apocalypse, before two surviving humans repopulate the Earth. And while all the characters are also loosely based on the various deities, the actual series of events that take place is firmly rooted in the seedier side of the real world. The story begins when an aspiring writer, Dan (Tan Shou Chen), falls for the young, beautiful party boy, Alan (Mitchell Fang). Dan’s secret admirer, Lachlan (Bright Ong) – who is waiting for AIDS to drag him to the grave – becomes enraged at their blossoming romance. Violence comes in the form of vicious words, the drugging of drinks, rape and, ultimately, death.

The narrative is interspersed with monologues, as the characters take turns to embody the gods that they represent. While the constant, though sometimes abruptly-executed, parallel with the mythological world feels strange at first, it does become effective in illustrating the fatalistic, larger-than-life tale that unfolds once we get used to it. The production also covers a huge amount of ground, from the sense of rage and helplessness that many HIV/AIDS patients suffer from, to how some parents are unable to come to terms with their children’s – and sometimes even their own – sexuality, and the devastation at the thought that one will never be able to have their own child because of the disease. We do wish that some of these issues could be delved into further, but the work nonetheless delivers the hard-hitting punches that it set out to.

The script by Andrew Sunderland is sharp and witty, and we respect the director, Aole T Miller, for having the guts to never shy away from the more graphic elements of the show (which is rated R18). The cast, too, fully gave themselves to their parts: Ong makes an alluringly sadistic monster, while Fang depicts the very picture of a naïve youngster struggling to make sense of the world. Tan plays out his tragic fate heartbreakingly, and Rosemary McGowan is endearing in her role as Thora, who works with those affected by HIV/AIDS, and friends with Dan and Alan. As everything spirals out of control, a duo of club kids, called the Icicles (Sunderland and Chanel Ariel Chan), delight in adding fuel to the fire with a bunch of bitchy one-liners.

The only problem we really have with the play is the pacing. It currently stands at two hours with no intermission, but certain scenes – such as when Dan lucidly dances with Lachlan after being drugged – could definitely be cut shorter to make the whole thing even punchier. The original songs by Esther Low, who also plays the quiet bargirl Hallie, are nice, but do not add much to the production and drags on at times. It doesn’t help that another real-life bar behind The Substation started rocking out from behind the wall towards the end of the show, and completely overrides the chance of us catching the lyrics properly.

But ultimately, the production has the edge that we were looking for. Yes, it’s sordid, but we don’t feel that it’s sordid just for the sake of it – the script wouldn’t have been brought to life as colourfully if these scenes were taken out – though we will say that we wouldn’t suggest bringing someone to see this on your first date.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Public Enemy’ Review

15 Apr 2015: Wild Rice opens its 15th anniversary season with a play that challenges the inherent problem of society, but Gwen Pew is left disappointed by this watered-down adaptation of a great classic

★★★☆☆

Photo: Wild Rice / Albert Lim KS

Photo: Wild Rice / Albert Lim KS

Staged during our nation’s golden jubilee and ahead of our next general election, Wild Rice’s take on Public Enemy – first written by Henrik Ibsen over a century ago, adapted by David Harrower in 2013 and now relocated to a fictionalised Singapore – promises to get us talking about difficult things. We went into the theatre ready to be confronted by a series of uncomfortable truths about a society bound by a selfish majority, and yet, despite this being a visually stunning production, we’re not convinced that its ambitious goal was achieved.

The plot revolves around Dr Thomas Chee (Ivan Heng), the medical director of the country’s well-renowned natural spas, who is hell-bent on exposing the toxic state of its waters. While he has his initial supporters, including members of the press and the business community, he soon gets tangled in a web of social, governmental and personal interests. Ultimately, he is thrown under the bus by a political system headed by his influential brother, the mayor Peter Chee (Lim Kay Siu).

The point of Ibsen’s iconic work is to critique the perils of a complacent society, whose inability to think for itself allows those in power to manipulate situations and sentiments in order to satisfy their own agenda. But the production doesn’t get this across, as Thomas quickly loses sight of his noble goal of bringing the truth to light once the tides and ‘solid majority’ turn against him. He declares that he loves his country in his rambling speech at the climax of the play – which was hurled at the audience with the house lights turned on – but he never shows that love in action. He declares that he is dedicated to his family, but he’s willing to put them all in danger because of his own ego. He declares that he is after the truth – but we’re not even sure whether the findings in the report are accurate. (We’re reminded by Peter that Thomas didn’t try to get a second opinion on them.) And when he declares at the end that he’s remaining in town after being branded a public enemy, he’s no longer fighting for the truth – he is, instead, fighting against his brother and the people who don’t agree with his views.

There are indeed many powerful themes and issues that the production could play with – from sibling rivalry and the responsibility of the media to a man’s duty to himself, his family and his nation – and while all of them are lightly touched upon, they are never explored to their full extent. The characters are also introduced without context, which makes it difficult for us to empathise with them. But most importantly, it’s almost impossible to root for the feeble and highly self-destructive protagonist, even though he is portrayed as a hero right until the final scene. So while we’re troubled by the fact that the nation is wrought by political and social back-scratching, we’re left at a loss about the play’s central message. The combination of these elements results in a piece that feels clumsy, convoluted, and diluted.

That said, as a theatrical performance, it’s aesthetically very attractive. Wong Chee Wai’s sleek, grey set, when paired with Lai Chan’s impeccable outfits and the cinematic lighting and sound effects, provides a very slick backdrop for the story. The cast is also composed of able actors: Heng channels the rash, frumpy and impassionate doctor compellingly; Serene Chen supports him well as his poor, loyal wife, Katherine; while Ghafir Akbar makes for a suitably slimy and fickle editor of the local newspaper. The rest of his family and acquaintances are likewise competently played, but Lim deserves special mention for filling the stage with his larger-than-life presence as the mayor, even when he’s merely glowering silently in the corner.

Overall, this is a performance that unfortunately has more style than substance. The fantastic set and good acting make for two straight hours of decent entertainment, but strip the visual appeal away and what we’re left with is a weak adapted script that never quite delivers the sting that it threatened to.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Normal’

6 Apr 2015: Back to the old school

Photo: Joel Lim / Calibre pictures

Photo: Joel Lim / Calibre pictures

‘I had a silly fight with my husband a while ago. He made an offhand remark like, “Why are you so stupid?” and I totally snapped. After I calmed down I thought about why I was so angry, and it occurred to me that I was carrying a lot of baggage from my past,’ confesses Faith Ng.

And then, all the unfortunate memories of the time she spent as a Normal (Academic) student came flooding out – like having a teacher lambast her for being ‘stupid’. But rather than let the unhappy thoughts eat her up, she channelled her angst into a play, simply titled Normal. Following two Secondary 5 Normal (Academic) students, Normal is an examination of those who have fallen through the cracks. And yes, it does get personal. She interviewed old classmates and former teachers, and about half of the work is based on actual events.

‘I’m usually quite fast at finishing the draft for a play, but this one took me two years to rework, and I had so many breakdowns!’ says Ng. But seeing it brought to life by the cast under Checkpoint Theatre’s co-artistic director, Claire Wong, made it all worth it. ‘[The way it looks on stage] wasn’t like what I had imagined at all. It’s so much better!’ she smiles.

And while she admits that she didn’t like school, little moments of compassion pulled her through. ‘My twin sister, who was in the Express stream, would slip me notes during breaks with messages like, “I hope you’re doing okay today!”’ Ng recalls. ‘There should be ways to define who we are other than how we do in exams.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Theatre Memories’

31 Mar 2015: The two ladies behind the Theatre Memories project tell Gwen Pew why now’s a good time to start documenting the shows on our stages

Actress Karen Tan getting her portrait taken.

Actress Karen Tan getting her portrait taken.

Singapore’s theatre scene is celebrating the nation’s golden jubilee in a big way, and many companies are putting on plays or adopting themes that have a particularly strong local flavour. In April alone, many of our most respected theatre practitioners are celebrated in Esplanade’s The Studios: fifty series. But what about the people who make the magic happen?

Well, they’re the reason that two UK-based Singaporeans are putting together a project called Theatre Memories, which applauds the hard work that people in the performing arts community have been putting in to light up our stages month after month. ‘I came up with the idea as I felt a personal urge to pay tribute to the people who have shaped the theatre scene here in such a short period of time,’ says Jennifer Lim, an actress and filmmaker.

At the heart of their project is a series of video interviews that the team conducted with 50 key players in the field, from big-name directors and actors to the best hair stylists and costume designers. Fifty, as the pair admits, is an arbitrary number, but it’s as good a start as any when they’re faced with such an enormous task. ‘It’s not an exhaustive list, but a representation of the industry right now,’ Lim is quick to point out. They started the project by coming up with a huge list of names, and then talked to other industry professionals to whittle it down to a more manageable number.

‘The performing arts are so transient and ephemeral, and things get lost so easily, so we’re hoping to keep their legacy alive through the memories of these 50 practitioners,’ explains Annie Jael Kwan, a producer and curator who’s collaborating with Lim on the project. By asking them a set of specific questions like what their first experience of theatre was, how they think the scene has changed since they first started off, and more light-hearted ones like how they would explain the Singapore stage to a Martian, Kwan and Lim ended up with hours of footage that not only present an overview of the theatre landscape, but some very personal stories, too.

What struck Lim most about the scene’s evolution is its gradual professionalization and the diversity of the types of local productions.

And Kwan strongly agrees, adding that ‘diversity’ can also be interpreted as cultural. ‘We interviewed T Nakulan, the managing director of the Ravindran Drama Group, and he told us about how Andy Pang directed their production of Pazhi. The show is in Tamil, and Pang doesn’t speak a word of it,’ she recalls. ‘But he just used a translated copy of the script and went with it. The funny thing is that he apparently started picking up some Tamil along the way!’

Theatre Memories is presented to the public through two main avenues: the edited footage is stored at the National Archives and accessible to anyone, but if you’re the more hands-on type, then head on over to their eponymous exhibition at The Arts House this month. Visitors will be taken on a journey through five sections of the building, including the box office and the Play Den, and, through props, given a sneak peek of life behind the bright lights of the stage.

Acknowledging that it can at times be difficult to pique people’s interest in the performing arts, Lim and Kwan are nonetheless confident that if they make the space intriguing, people will come. They’re convinced that the project is an important homage to where Singapore theatre now stands. ‘I hope that through Theatre Memories, we can throw off the shackles, stop thinking that we need to “catch up” to what the West is doing, and see that our works are just as good,’ adds Lim.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Titoudao’

Gwen Pew finds out more from Toy Factory’s founding artistic director, Goh Boon Teck, about what’s in store for the company’s 25th anniversary

Titoudao

2 Mar 2015: In 1990, an 18-year-old boy named Goh Boon Teck decided that he wanted to set up his own playground, a place where he can go and have fun every day. He called it Toy Factory. More than two decades later, that boy’s dream bloomed into one of Singapore’s most renowned bilingual theatre groups. ‘Twenty-five years just flew by. I wasn’t really counting,’ says Goh when we met him. ‘It’s a milestone, but it’s just part of the journey.’

Instead of celebrating the anniversary with a brand new play, however, Goh dug into the company’s illustrious repertoire to bring back one of their most beloved works. First staged in 1994, Titoudao is what he describes as Toy Factory’s ‘best armour; the most precious child’. It’s won a string of awards and toured to cities such as Cairo and Shanghai, but ultimately, Goh picked it because it’s a work that’s close to his heart.

For starters, the story is based on the life of his mother, Madam Oon Ah Chiam. Born into a family of ‘too many girls’, as Goh tells us, she and her sister were sold into a Chinese opera troupe called Sin Sai Hong – they were Singapore’s oldest opera group at the time, but closed last year – to lessen her family’s financial burden. Although Madam Oon fell in love with the stage and still performs wayang today, her personal life was fraught with poverty, inequality and other struggles. Titoudao, which is named after the comedic male character with whom Madam Oon became associated, throws both her public and private lives into the limelight.

The play will be restaged for the fifth time, and Madam Oon has watched every single production. But it hasn’t been easy, Goh recalls: ‘She used to cry each time because it brought back painful memories. But her tears have finally dried.’ She’s even the vocal coach for this performance, giving her son notes after rehearsals.

This time, though, Goh has given Titoudao a facelift – only the script remains the same. The hair and makeup, for instance, are inspired more by the Taiwan and Hokkien styles of opera as opposed to the Beijing style, which means there’s ‘a lot of blue eye shadow and sequins!’ Goh promises. But the main difference is the brand new cast: Audrey Luo stars in the lead role, supported by Timothy Wan, Daphne Quah and Trey Ho, among others. Goh encouraged them to adopt a different perspective, and jokes that he had to ‘act stupid’ to draw out fresh ideas from them.

There’s another reason Goh wants to restage Titoudao. ‘We should bring it back every few years to remind people that the traditional arts still need saving,’ he says, adding that he hopes the younger generation can relate to the cast, all of whom are younger than 35 years old. ‘If the actors can perform it, the audience can understand it.’

Goh wishes more youths would seek out wayang performances after catching Titoudao, which he considers an introduction to Chinese opera. ‘I try to go to as many Chinese opera performances as I can with my mother. It’s like our bonding activity,’ Goh smiles. ‘Culture is very important. It’s in our blood, and you cannot change the blood that’s in you.’

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.