Theatresauce‘s final Emerging Directors Lab showcase for the 2017/2018 season showcased four plays by four different directors. There are subtle highs and obvious lows – but what’s certain is that each director inserted their own style into the staging.
(If you haven’t checked it out head to this link and get yourself a ticket. This week is the final week!)
Due to the lack of common theme, the experience of going to this showcase was like a visit to a small gallery of genres. Two of the plays, namely The Light and Api, Jangan Lupa Api incorporates the avant-garde and the weird (think Romeo Castellucci), while Project Eve and Soldiers sticks to mostly conventional (though at times minimal modes of theatre).
These plays should then be assessed separately as their own disparate works.
The Light by Alex Chua
Directed by Alex Chua
Written by Noah Nazim
Featuring: Michael Chen, Tania Knutt, Malik Taufiq & Alexis Wong
Director of Photography: Ali Motamedi
The execution of surreal environments in any form is ridden with cliches. Whenever people think “surreal” or “psychedelic”, images of colourful spirals, wavy lines, pastel, Dali, ‘flower power’ sitars, distorted electronic noise manifest. The Light attempted to distant itself from LSD-induced motifs in its portrayal of “mental health” with successful results. The confinements of Laina’s (played by Alexis Wong) mind and surroundings is depicted through a lonely bathtub where she cowers in for most of the play’s duration, a lightbulb, three storage closets where the “voices in her life” resides and old TV sets in the corners that correspond to the scene with subliminal imagery. Alex Chua does a decent job at capturing an environment that always straddles between hallucinations and reality. However, Laina’s claustrophobia and loneliness works only intermittently, as some parts loses any sense of rhythm and fades into tired illegibility.
Noah Nazim’s writing itself is not the culprit for this tedium. In fact, there are many moments that successfully bring the audience along with Laina’s confusion as she comes back to a home having lost everything meaningful in her life. You share Laina’s feelings of disorientation in the conversations about stopping time and romanticizing tragedy. The stumbling block is often in Michael Chen‘s performance. In a play where an actor plays several characters and have to transition between them without curtains to hide the process, Michael unfortunately slightly loses track of his persona at times. The mistakes are rarely jarring, but when one of the personas is supposed to be a robotic, disingenuous, stoic but sinister talk show host, the slightest trip can ruin the pace.
Malik Taufiq‘s manic transformations on the other hand, are a sight to behold. Incredibly seamless between his characters that are disturbingly malicious at times, annoyingly pedantic in others. Alexis Wong also competently internalizes the struggle with sanity in holding on to the things that make Laina’s life positive while not believing in them at all.
The Light has its moments of brilliance – some them even quotable. Unfortunately it does get unnecessarily tiring.
Project Eve by Esther Liew
Directed by Esther Liew
Dramaturg: Trina Teoh
Featuring: Annie Too, Lily Jamaludin & Celine Wan
Original Song: Vale Wong
Through Project Eve, the audience is served with differing perspectives of mother-daughter relationships touching themes on hope, love, sacrifice, communication and identity. The trio’s stories overlap to show commonality, with each character taking turns getting their own spotlight whenever it is their own, isolated tale. The blocking and direction by Esther Liew gives these stories a semblance of life, a place on stage with rhythmic appeal. Not forgetting to mention, Vale Wong’s whimsical and melancholic song summarizes the vibe of the play beautifully.
It’s a spoken word performance with boxes, aiming to be minimal probably to emphasize the story instead of overloading the audience with redundant stage embellishments. The monologues themselves are the play, which is a double-edged sword.
For one, the question of whether or not this play acts as a great substitute to conversation always lingers in the mind. A lot of very powerful things are said. It’s a PSA on inclusiveness, acceptance and an empowering evaluation of self-worth in a relationship that sometimes demotivates. These things are important in a conversation about mothers and daughters, and the ensemble talk about them with sincerity. But there is nothing about Project Eve that makes it memorable as a play beyond that. The moments of strength in the play are portrayed through each character’s literal moment of strength, i.e. whenever they talk about overcoming the odds or finally understanding their mother. What can anyone get from this play that they can’t get from a book or getting to know the people around them better? Could this just have been a spoken word performance and be equally as strong and resonant?
Project Eve tells stories that manifests themselves in very personal and naked forms. Lily Jamaluddin, Celine Wan, Annie Too all have very engaging tales to convey, and Esther’s directorial decision to combine some stories into one is magnificent. But for the most part, this play doesn’t innovate in any meaningful sense. Heartwarming anecdotes and depressingly relatable moments are aplenty – and I guarantee that some tears will be shed in other nights too.
But for people who do not share these experiences; whose moments of womanhood, growth and relationship with their mother do not fall within any of the categories conveyed by the actresses, there is very little to look forward to. Minimalism doesn’t always work.
Surely, a great exercise of empathy, but not much to be said about creativity.
Soldiers by Toby Teh
Directed by Toby Teh
Featuring Lee Min Hui, Davina Goh, & Jeremy Ooi
I could barely see this play. And no, this is not a randomly mean jab. For 85% of this play, everything was almost pitch dark, tinged with barely effective green lighting. The subtlety of the actor’s emotions are almost invisible (maybe for good reason since there wasn’t much subtlety). I don’t believe there was any artistic decision behind making the lights so dim, then the simple fact that the director possibly thought, “Hey, it’s at night. Nights are usually dark”.
Soldiers is a great peek into what happens when Ted Kotcheff or Sylvester Stallone (both directors of different instalments of Rambo) tries to direct a play. With only the knowledge of movie scenes, putting together a play means making sure the stage feels exactly like how “it would be in real life”, which leads to clumsy scenography that looks likes it begging to be filmed in front of a camera and then later edited in post. But this is a play; it doesn’t work that way. Unlike action films, there is no campy, redeeming quality that could have saved it. No likeable character, no amazingly choreographed combat, just two people asking each other about their lives and trying to ‘wax philosophical’.
The synopsis for Soldiers, unfortunately, does a better job at asking philosophical questions than the play itself (“Would you kill a child to survive? Would you kill your friend for your beliefs? Would you kill to save a friend? Would you kill a child to save a friend? Are your morals that important to you? Two soldiers. One hostage. No way out. This is the story of two Soldiers.” This even sounds like it belongs in a movie trailer with Don LaFontaine voiceovers. “TWO SOLDIERS. ONE HOSTAGE. NO WAY OUT. THIS SUMMER IN CINEMAS NEAR YOU”)
The moral complexity of war gets lost in the exchanging of cliches. There was even one scene where one soldier speaks “technical” and the other goes “in ENGLISH”, just like in those hundreds of movies and TV shows that I try to avoid. It gets frustratingly difficult to immerse yourself in these moral conundrums of killing innocent lives for the sake of the greater good, when the innocent life in this play is inadvertently dehumanized. The child in this play is merely a screaming prop. There is nothing else about the way the character is portrayed that invites you to empathize with her.
The talent of the actors in the play are wasted by terrible writing. The risk of putting these characters in what is supposed to be a scene during the Cold War (because their accents try really hard to be American and their enemies are Russians) is that any slip of characterization immediately destroys immersion. Davina Goh and Jeremy Ooi speaking to the command center through the radio system because the accent of the person speaking on the other end of the line sounds nothing like their accent.
There is so much that can be done with such a subject matter. So many questions of philosophical profoundness that could be addressed if there was any sense of mindfulness about the audience and the writing in the context of an actual theatrical framework. At last, the only questions we’re left with “What is going on? And when is this going to end?”
The Michael Bay of plays, without the added benefit of cool Transformers.
Api, Jangan Lupa Api by Arief Hamizan
Directed by Arief Hamizan
Featuring Ali Alasri, Ariff Kamil, Claudia Low & Veshalini Naidu
Nonsensical. Ridiculous. Two words that can be used to accurately describe Api, Jangan Lupa Api; in a surprisingly good light.
Arief Hamizan takes the cake for pushing the boundaries of the theatre medium in this possibly non-linear, probably absurdist play about mortality and divinity, and really whatever you want it to be. Veshalini Naidu and Ariff Kamil’s work on the visuals is astounding in portraying a universe that has reset. The play immediately ambushes you with the general thought that in the world on stage, there really is nothing that exists beyond.
Ali Alasri plays Suara, (a kind of god, if you will). He is just Voice. He cannot see and does not possess a body. The way the setting personalizes and embodies a character that is otherwise disembodied is amazing. The deity character does not undergo any real exposition and has no real beginning, and only aided by passing dialogue which hints at his loneliness. With such a heavy theme in their hands, the director wraps it up in a package of ironic levity – subversive without being preachy.
All of this makes Claudia Low’s portrayal as the first person in this new Universe, aka Perempuan, deserving of so much praise, as she interacts with someone who is barely there – pulling off all her stops without ever doing too much. In her conversations with Suara, Claudia’s adds charm to an inquisitive character whose only company is a being she cannot touch. Something so distant and different as the First Person In The Universe feels remarkably relatable amidst everything else wacky – so when she breaks and falls into the darker side of things, you inadvertently care.
Api, Jangan Lupa Api is devised, but its collaborative writing nature does not belie its sense of humour. The play is filled to the brim with things that can lead to introspection. It is a heaven for symbol-hunters; people who seek to find meaning in anything from props, to lighting, to soundtrack choices (which if I might add, was incredible). However, the best thing about Api is that you don’t have to get it. You don’t have to be in the mood for philosophy to brace yourself to watch this play. Even with the objective of being entertained, there are so many hilarious scenes to cherish that will ensure you’d have a fun time watching it.
Reminiscent of Castellucci’s theatrical approach, Api, Jangan Lupa Api can be meaningless but with immediate impact on the spectator. But if you’re delirious, you can also spend hours in conversation with your friends who’ve watched it. Api Jangan Lupa Api reminds us that in our search for meaning, we inadvertently fall into distractions that we sometimes treasure as purpose. It is quintessentially a play of ‘playfulness’ – unafraid to take risks in the pursuit of making the audience ‘feel’.
Theatresuace Light. Eve. Soldier. Fire. is still showing in Rooftop Theatre, Sunway College as of the publishing date of this article. Click here for tickets and info.