Tragicomedy of Errors was staged last week at Pentas 1, klpac, and presented by Pentas Project. Seeing the title, I was expecting an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, but that was not entirely the case. Tragicomedy of Errors was more of a restaging of a 1986 play titled “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land”, written by a renown Taiwanese playwright-director, Stan Lai. While the bard’s play involves the switching of two sets of twins, Tragicomedy of Errors centers around two groups of theatre production that have to share a stage because of a booking error. This somewhat similar concept, in addition to the play’s slapstick, puns and word play, could be the reason it was titled as so.
The play started with the audience in spellbound over Anwar Rusdini’s singing. Anwar played Johan, a Singaporean man in the year of the formation of Malaysia, 1963. In the first scene, Johan met with his girlfriend, Mei Yue (Lenna Lim), a Penang girl, who is soon to leave Singapore to celebrate Chinese New Year with her family. (Spoiler: They do not see each other again for 40 years. Duhhh). This is the “Secret Love” part of the story.
As the scene ends, they were cut short by a director (Na’a Murad) and his assistant director (Nabil Zakaria), revealing that these people are actually rehearsing a play. They started again, and the second time was cut off by 3 actors from the other play, who walks in on stage and demands for their right to the space. After a short argument, the “Secret Love” actors leave and give way, albeit forced, to the other group, the “Peach Blossom Land” part of the story.
These disruptions on each others’ rehearsals continue on for a few more scenes – which can be confusing and draggy for some audiences. It was surprisingly engaging to me. The small fusses in between each rehearsal “cut” was hilarious and well adapted to a Malaysian context. Despite most of the lines in “Peach Blossom Land” being in Chinese and I had to read the subtitles half the time, “off scenes”, the actors spoke a good mixture of Malaysian languages, easily sending the audience into laughters regarding of their races. On top of that, I was also eager to find out how each part of the story will end.
“Peach Blossom Land” was about a mismatched married couple, Lao Tao (Yeo Lyle), and Chun Hua (MayJune Tan), who argue all the time. Their neighbour Shan Lao Ban (Leow Hui Min) arrives, and it was disclosed to the audience that he and Chun Hua are indeed having an affair. Although I do not usually fancy the slapstick element commonly present in Chinese Theatre, my little understanding of Mandarin did help me get through the puns. Having terrific actors also helped, in that even when some actions were overdone, it was accompanied by equally overdone and justifiable reactions.
The actors in “Secret Love” was not half bad too. Anwar Rusdini, Na’a Murad, Nabil Zakaria, along with Anne James and Bella Rahim gracefully matched the vicious energy of “Peach Blossom Land” with their groundedness and dramatic control. Although I find newcomer Lenna Lim not as in love as her character is supposed to be, her scene with Anwar at the end did touch me nonetheless. Not to forget, the balance between the two theatre groups was wonderfully steered by director Loh Kok Man, so much so that it felt like two directors were actually behind it.
Although the first act had longer and draggier scenes, act two was worth the wait. The scene where the two groups finally shared the stage (yes, they both shared the stage half-half. I can imagine half the stage managers I know who probably fainted by now), was absolutely side-splitting. Geddit, sides splitting? Ah ah ah. Clashing two different cultures on one stage – both in story and theatrical approach – is not a challenge that many wants to take, but Loh Kok Man along with writers had manage to put it on seamlessly.
The only thing I found unnecessary about the play was the mysterious woman in red who kept looking for a Liu Ziju. Apparently there is a literature backstory to that, but it failed to deliver and ended up serving as a minor comic relief to an already gigantically comic production. Despite the entire story being much enjoyable, I’m also not sure if there was a theme or message to be earned from it. Not having any themes is not a bad thing, but after all the efforts and the stage brawls and the pleadings to take control of the stage, I expected there to be a valuable lesson somewhere. Instead, I went home saddened by Johan’s final crying. Which is still quite valuable, sobs.
Overall, I enjoyed Tragicomedy of Errors and believe more plays with this concept could be staged. Despite the production and marketing to be predominantly Chinese, I wished more Malaysians had come to watch the play. It was quintessential tragedy and comedy.
Overall score: 9/10
Featured Image Photo: Pam Lim. All photos by Pam Lim, courtesy of The Pentas Project.