Twenty Something Theatre Festival Week 2 [18/6/16]

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Today, we returned to the wilderness of Goodman Arts Centre to tackle the second set of plays by a new wave of young practitioners. This week, we saw much more sociopolitical themes, from attitudes towards foreigners, government campaigns and

Without much further ado, here’s part 2 of the Fresh plays:

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5pm – Curry Puff by Kimberly Arriola

Curry Puff marks the second monologue of the Twenty Something Theatre Festival, following last week’s The Cave. Adinda Savitri plays Robiah Lia Caniago, a 40 year old Indonesian women who was convicted for operating an unlicensed curry puff ‘syndicate’ in her HDB flat last year. The script was transcribed from interviews from Caniago herself, whose side of the story was hardly quoted in both mainstream and alternative media when it was publicized last year.

Savitri is a theatrical force of nature and was cast perfectly. Hailing from Indonesia herself, she embodies the character of an innocent single parent striving to make ends meet very well, and evokes plenty of sympathy for Robiah’s case. The play follows her story from her arrival in Singapore, to her establishment of the curry puff factory, to her eventual incarceration of 5 days due to being unable to pay the fine of $3,000. In particular, her account of her frustrating experience with the customs office was the highlight of the play, her voice raised to a shout when she explains angrily to the customs officer how if it weren’t for her, there’d be no one to care for her son.

The rest of the play is punctuated by the ensemble playing various minor characters Robiah encounters, from a curry puff seller (who sells real curry puffs to the audience) to the voices of the various media outlets reporting on the incident (which could have done without reading the full URLs out loud). The script of course, didn’t forget to rap on how the media described the entire operation as a ‘syndicate’, even dressing Savitri up in sunglasses and gold chains to emphasise the ridiculousness of it all. But through the ridiculousness, the play makes a valid point – if you’re going to convict one person of a crime like this, what about all the aunties who make food during Chinese New Year or Hari Raya to sell? Robiah is portrayed as a victim, but is never vindictive of the government, even explaining that she likes Singapore more than Indonesia, only that it was a pity that she was indicted and they only chose to clamp down, but not offer help to her when she needed it most, highlighting the occasionally unfair way the law is brought down upon us.

Curry Puff was a play with an agenda to increase sympathy for and reflect on our attitudes towards foreigners and migrant workers, and it succeeded. That’s something not many plays can attest to, and the team behind Curry Puff should be very proud of this amazing sociopolitical piece they’ve crafted. This was a necessary voice in our theatre scene that should be heard, and was creative and thought provoking. Well done.

7pm – Balek Kampung by David Khoo

In a strange parallel to last week’s National Memory Project, Balek Kampung also imagines a Singapore in the future, this time set 150 years later, in a land where the government’s consciousness has been combined into a single HAL-9000 like entity (abbreviated to CEPARS) to control the affairs of the entire nation.

Balek Kampung takes the form of an evening radio show, specifically news from 938 Live and Symphony 92.4. Absurd news items projected in an alien language onscreen are broadcast to the audience, from CEPARS declaring the phasing out of uncles, to historians detonating time bombs to mess with Singapore’s time line, which acts as the catalyst for the ensuing events. Symphony 92.4 attempts to play classical hits from Rachmaninov and Bach, but the broadcast ends up scrambled with relics from Singapore’s past, playing tunes such as the ill-conceived Phua Chu Kang SARS rap. Things take a turn for the strange when the broadcast ends up with actual characters from campaigns and popular TV shows pop up onstage, from Move In Martin and Give Way Glenda of SMRT fame, to the slightly outdated VR Man.

Stranger still are when original, corrupted characters like ‘Zhuodeng Zachary’ appear and comments rather self-awarely on his existence as a ‘potato person’, or VR Man and his arch-nemesis Click-click Man (an actual character from the original series) engage in a “virp battle” where they attempt to beat each other in wordplay. The latter sees VR Man countering Click-click Man’s “Corrupt Western Ideals” and “Apathetic, Thankless Youth” with “Good Asian Values” and “The Pioneer Generation”, leading to a side character commenting “Wahlao, you guys not sick of social studies meh?”, resulting in hearty laughter from the audience. The kicker of course, is when Phua Chu Kang (a brilliant physically on point Darren Guo, with the costume to match) comes onstage and engages in a rap battle with an unnamed Indian neighbor (Hafidz Abdul Rahman in drag), and fed off the infectious cheers and enthusiastic applause of the audience, making it a truly exciting scene.

David Khoo’s humour, particularly during the news segments, is reminiscent of popular American podcast Welcome to Night Vale, which takes a similar absurdist and self aware approach towards its fictitious news reporting. The script is no doubt extremely clever and witty, and I found myself laughing out loud throughout the duration of the play. However, the play never did have an overarching plot, and ended up being an empty (but accurate) parody of pop culture and government campaigns, and would have been aided immensely by the inclusion of a clearer narrative.

Kudos to the extremely strong ensemble of Nicholas Bloodworth, Chan Meiyi, Benson Pang, Hafidz Abdul Rahman, Darren Guo and Jasmine Blundell for having brilliant onstage chemistry and high energy to carry the humour through. This was the most irreverently enjoyable pieces of the lot and if anything, they should be starting their own comedy revue rivaling Chestnuts – there’s some serious potential from this cast, many of them rising professionals in their own right, and a lot more where that came from.

9pm – Tuition by Euginia Tan

Poet Euginia Tan makes her second foray into the theatre scene with the most straightforward and ‘normal’ play of the lot. Tuition follows the story of Jonathan (John Tan), a precocious and gifted, yet socially inept 13 year old, and a series of sessions with his new pink-loving, church-going tuition teacher Joanne Lee (Yap Yi Kai).

The play turns out exactly as you expect it to – through the patience, resilience and nurturing nature of Miss Lee, Jonathan becomes a better person, and gets a lesson in life more than academics. But the beauty of it all lies in the direction and sheer poetry of Euginia’s script, which appears simple enough, but flows easily and so naturally that you could swear this was one of the most normal, everyday conversations you can imagine seeing realistically. There was a clear beginning, problem and end, which felt believable enough, and themes and motifs were expanded on enough to tug at audience heartstrings, such as Miss Lee’s explanation for her belief in the Christian faith, or her encouragement to Jon to pursue the arts and simple sports. Even simple throwaway lines such as her reliance on her mother for support come full circle by the end of the play, making for a very satisfying and hopeful ending, and a tightly crafted script that pays off onstage.

This was also a very well directed piece, courtesy of improv practitioner Hazel Ho, where not much happens on stage between the two actors, who spend most of the play sitting side by side, but the details and tiny gestures are what matter the most. Jonathan’s stubborn attitude and little quirks will remind audiences of difficult children they might have encountered as tutors (or were themselves when having tuition), and Yap’s portrayal of Miss Lee is at once vulnerable, accessible and a character we can empathize with, her hesitations at the door and her initial shock at Jonathan’s behavior pitch perfect. Yap Yi Kai is a rising star in the making, and she has a bright future ahead of her if she keeps this work up.

Tuition has a sold out run and is well deserving of it. Although I was a little disturbed by the plot twist and the ease with which the ‘problem’ solved itself, it remains a very well produced piece and easily one of the best this festival had to offer. An understated but effective portrayal of the impact an outsider can offer and a statement on the increasing neglect parents have for their own children, and perhaps how there is something more to be gleaned from the school of life, alongside our assigned syllabus.

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All in all, a very satisfying week of Fresh plays that makes me confident in saying that the future of Singapore’s theatre scene lies in good hands, with a little nurturing of course. It’s initiatives like these that truly reveal what our young talents these days are capable of and here’s hoping Twenty Something comes back for Round 2 soon.

 

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