REVIEW: Petty People by NUS Theatre Studies

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It’s always heartening to see youth theatre going strong, and when people even take it upon themselves to form an education out of it, even more so. Petty People is a culmination of the talent in NUS’ Theatre Studies programme in a single production. Produced by Nora Samosir and directed by NUS Theatre Studies Alumni Thong Pei Qin, Petty People follows an unusual devising strategy, in which the team got three dramaturges to come up with a storyline each, before coming together and weaving it into a single play.

The play is linked by its odd premise – a Malay girl rushes to the vet with a dog that’s barely alive. She is not the dog’s owner. Although the vets attempt to save it, they declare it dead. Yet the dog’s tail continues wagging despite its still body. The vets decide to put down the dog, but the Malay girl protests, crying out ‘How can you take away my brother?!’ What in the world is going on?

In the first scenario, the Malay girl is seen with her religious teacher (Imam) as they read the Quran together, kneeling on the prayer mat. Still reeling from her (actual) brother’s recent death, she asks her Imam what happens after death, and tells him about the dog she found. Enraged because she touched a dog (taboo in Islamic culture) and even compares her brother with it, he tells her to go clean herself up and not to question Allah. Fadhil Daud certainly shows a lot of potential to make it in the local theatre scene and later on, even plays the role of a hairless rabbit surprisingly well, whose pain and mix of emotions was completely evident on his face as vets pulled out the single hair that grew only once every 10 years, a bright spark in the play.

In the next scenario, an eccentric, paranoid scientist, also the dog owner’s father (Michael Ng), is on a flight to a business meeting. He’s joined by a shady man heading towards the same destination (Kenneth Chia), who harbours the desire to get ahead of the scientist via any means possible, ending up going through his notes. The scientist, on the other hand, was oddly afraid of his son’s dog, believing it to be staring at him and spying on him constantly, and fantasises about killing the dog.

In the third scenario, the dog owner (Nicholas Tan) and his mother are taken to a medium, a kind of ‘dog whisperer’ said to specialize in labradors and golden retrievers. The scene shows a willingness to put blind faith in mediums and pay anything just to feel and talk to their loved ones once again, no matter how outrageous the price or concept. The mother-son relationship on the other hand, is badly strained by the mother’s extravagant spending habits, from mahjong to expensive, frivolous material items, and when money really matters, can’t cough up the dough to pay for it, as in the case of the medium’s fee.

In the final scenario, two vets (Christer Jon Aplin and Perry Felix Shen) discuss the ‘dead’ dog. One of the vets explains that he used to own a dog just like that, and came up with a solution to save the dog, but by that time, it was already dead. Having never wanted to see the same thing happen again, he was triggered when he saw this dog come in. One criticism to be made here is that Aplin wasn’t quite able to draw out the emotions present in his story when he reminisced about his previous dog dying, and flatlined when it came to expression, and weakened the scenario somewhat.

The play reached its climax as the tensions in all four scenarios reached a peak, and the arguments brewing exploded into full blown fighting . As the cast devolved into feral, animal-like behaviour, balloons were released all over the stage, a kind of delirium that added volume and colour to the entire scene. Partway through the fighting, the stage was then washed in ultraviolet light, and the actors has painted themselves with paint visible only under the light, making for a visually interesting scene. At the same time, we were more interested in the frenzy that was actually happening, and the lights ended up obscuring most of the action instead of adding a new layer of drama.

As a whole, the storyline of Petty People was a little choppy and slightly disjoint, such as the Malay family scenario, which works fine on its own, but added to the overall plot, seemed to detract. In addition, although the tension was present, perhaps there were still many elements that did not entirely execute as professionally as it might have. But ultimately, it was evident that process wise, these 12 students have really enjoyed themselves and formed a strong sense of camaraderie in the process of bouncing ideas off of each other, having given it their all on stage, a high energy performance that resonated with the crowd, and showcasing some good theatre techniques that they’ll hopefully take with them, those that intend to enter the industry after graduation.

Performance attended on 29/3/17.

Petty People plays at the Yale-NUS Black Box till 31 March. Tickets are sold out.

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