The inaugural twenty something theatre festival began this week, and we were really excited to cover it! We marathoned all four plays today, and we’re going to review the headline play here, and the Fresh plays in a separate post. Kudos to Tan Kheng Hua for producing this amazing festival with great opportunities, and hoping that it returns again next year!
We started off the day with the Headliner of the week, Trees, A Crowd… by Irfan Kasban
Irfan Kasban is undoubtedly the veteran playwright of the bunch, so it wouldn’t be fair to compare it with the other three. Safe to say though, I thoroughly enjoyed this piece.
Trees is a very meta play, starting off with the four cast members going around the audience and asking for signatures for a petition to save a 150 year old Damar Hitam Gajah tree in danger of being cut down to pave the way for a new road that serves the clubbers and hipsters. Unfortunately, said tree does not meet the requirements for being considered as a ‘heritage tree’ worthy of conservation, and after countless emails, the authorities decide to shift the direction of work and knock down another tree instead, one that was planted by the late PM.
Thus begins a long debate on which tree is worth saving. Within the group, Jo Tan plays the zealous and enthusiastic president, fond of making up odd sayings (Catch 20/20 anyone?). Faizal Abdullah plays the exasperated Vice-President, who lost out on the presidency by a grand total of 2 votes. Chng Xin Xuan plays the third member, who is smart and professes a love of English poetry, and finally Shafiqah Efandi plays the hapless fourth member, who was dragged in against her will. Together, the 4 person cast forms SOFAR, The Society of Flora and Roots, which aims to save and award equal rights to every tree.
What follows is a zany forum conducted by SOFAR, with audiences periodically voting which tree they’d rather save, after each segment of the play, which offers new insight and arguments for both sides. The stage changes from meeting room to courtroom, to TV studio to TV commercial, with the cast playing a myriad of roles. Be prepared for countless painful puns playing on trees and other vegetation, yet still elicit laughter from the audience due to their delivery, mostly from the extremely self-aware Jo Tan, who ensures that every joke is exaggerated to the point where you find yourself giggling along to her own infectious laughter, and mostly carries the play with her onstage energy. Shafiqah Efandi and Jo Tan work especially well together in an extended scene where they attempt to turn trees into a marketable indus-tree (geddit?), and play the roles of overly scripted TVC babes with aplomb, and both showcase their vocal prowess, singing songs in Malay and Mandarin respectively. Faizal Abdullah has multiple conflicting roles, from playing an effeminate ‘forester in training’, to a roadside sweeper, to his rage-y onstage counterpart. Finally, Chng Xin Xuan plays mostly quiet roles, but is allowed her chances to shine when she plays a fengshui master, in addition to a new age crazy.
Irfan Kasban’s script is sharp and full of observant wit, playing on character archetypes and allowing for sustained entertainment throughout the ninety minute performance. At the same time, it’s not all fun and games, and the humour is balanced out with a greater political message. The real issue is not which tree the audience picks in the end, but the way the forum creates a sense of ownership in the audience and to become stakeholders in issues they never knew they could, referencing the concept of millennials (born between 1980-2000) being uncaring and standing for nothing. By the end of the play, you’ll find yourself torn between the equally fought for trees, which both have valid reasons to be saved and wondering ‘If a tree falls in a city and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’
Overall, Trees, A Crowd… is the latest addition to the growing set of Singaporean political-but-not-political plays, and is a thoroughly fun one at that. It is relevant while finely balancing a light tone with a deeper message and is wholly deserving of the title of Headliner for the 20-something theatre festival.
Stay tuned for our upcoming reviews of the Fresh plays featured this week!