Review: Asian Youth Theatre Festival Day 1

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The inaugural Asian Youth Theatre Festival kicked off at *SCAPE on Friday, and we sat through FIVE of the ten short, one act plays that were presented at the festival today! Tasked to perform plays that riffed on themes of cultural identity, these youth groups from both the international theatre scene and Singapore certainly delivered on the theme, some more successfully than others, and proved that just because it’s labelled youth theatre, doesn’t mean it can’t be treated seriously, or tell stories that are equally as impactful or important. Check out our reviews of the shows from HYPOKRITE, The Actors Studio, Buds Youth Theatre, The Young Company and Deep Acting Productions below:

Pazhuppu by HYPOKRITE (Ravindran Youth Drama) (Singapore)

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Directed by local thespian Ebi Shankara, HYPOKRITE (Greek for ‘actor’) opened the inaugural AYTF as the very first show of the weekend and presented a thoroughly modern production that dealt with the difficulties of growing up Tamil in Singapore.

Pazhuppu literally translates to ‘Brown’, and follows the lives of three Tamil friends – Logan (Ruban Maniam), a naturalized Indian growing up in Singapore, Arun (Vinod Rao), an Anglicized Tamil who rejects his roots, and Vimala (Hasisha Nazir), who holds on tight to her Tamil identity and fluency with the language. In watching the three friends recall their childhood, one becomes keenly aware of the many forms of othering one triggers in the ignorance of childhood, whether it’s the casual racism of calling someone “apu neh neh’ and laughing, or the additional burden of gender, and all the expectations of conservatism lumped onto a woman.

It is these childhood ‘traumas’ that affect the characters in adulthood, and though we only spend an hour with these characters, some of their stories strike a poignant chord, and echo years of unconscious prejudice and discrimination against minorities. Through Pazhuppu, playwright Aswani Aswath has crafted a sharp, observant script that isn’t afraid to speak up about prevalent, yet rarely discussed issues. Brought to life by a capable cast, with a little more tightening and tweaking, Pazhuppu has the potential to become a cornerstone play for the millennial generation so concerned with equality and representation, and deserves future stagings for its undeniably urgent, relevant message.

Still Taming by The Actors Studio (Malaysia)

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Photo Credit: klpac

Next, Kuala Lumpur based The Actors Studio came down to present Still Taming, a vignette piece that effectively captures what it is like to grow up female in multicultural, multilingual Malaysia.

Beginning with a rendition of Que Sera Sera, Still Taming’s cast takes audiences on a journey from girlhood through adolescence, with its myriad of characters presenting brief scenes, from an ethnically Chinese girl berated in class for not being able to speak Mandarin, to memories of domestic violence between parents. Girlhood gives way to sexual awakening, and The Actors Studio also devotes a couple of scenes to sexuality in every form, from a 13-year old girl insecure about her body to issues, of homosexuality when a Catholic girl confesses to another about her potential feelings before being swiftly admonished. Clad in sarongs that transform from beautiful dresses to washing linen, the cast performs some remarkable ensemble work throughout the performance, and though fleeting in their interactions, effectively play off each other to bring out each scene’s latent emotions.

Despite its cheery exterior and many laugh out loud moments, Still Taming is tinged with an aura of melancholy, as many of these vignettes speak of overbearing patriarchy, archaic rules and regulations, and unfair expectations of the modern woman. Literally no stone goes unturned in this poetic, poignant production, and in spite of it feeling almost like we’re rapidly channel surfing, these unrelated snapshots come together to form a complete picture of the female condition in conservative Malaysia. Entertaining yet socially relevant, Still Taming is a triumph of the vignette form, and if these young actors are the future of the Malaysian theatre scene, then you can be sure we’ll be crossing the Causeway soon to see more of these incredible productions.

The House Party by Buds Youth Theatre (Singapore)

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Written and directed by Wisely Chow, The House Party is exactly what it sounds like, as a group of girls gather to party it up and get piss drunk. In between hilarious off key renditions of ‘Since U Been Gone’ and other Top 40s hits, we follow two unlikely pairs – a Malay girl wearing a pair of headphones over her tudung who came to see ‘a different scene’ apprehensively befriending a leather jacket bound girl who’s been temporarily ditched by her girlfriend, and a no nonsense type who drives her former best friend home after the latter passes out drunk.

Conceptually, The House Party seems like a good idea, and if anything, can be favourably compared to attempting to capture similar notions of adolescent peril, much like British teen-drama series Skins. The House Party captures and evokes the mood of a specific class and period the modern millennial teen goes through, touching on relevant themes from (homosexual) love both lost and found, to a burgeoning feeling of pressure so prevalent, and even touches on the stigma of mental illness. Wisely Chow should be commended for handling this all-female cast and bringing his script to life, and occasionally feels dangerously familiar; the social media obsession for example, is represented by a girl uploading a drunken selfie to Instagram before losing the smile on her face to demand the other party guests to follow her. Wisely’s script is also peppered with interesting imagery, such as the Voyager Golden Record becoming a metaphor for humanity’s loneliness and desire to find connection somewhere out there in the universe, when Earth simply doesn’t feel enough.

It could do with a couple of tweaks, particularly with regard to improving the believability and conviction of some of the lines delivered, but what The House Party does succeed at is to accurately express a moment in time that just about every modern teen has gone through – an incurable, aching loneliness that feels impossible to patch, but leaves audiences with the hope that this too shall pass.

The Three Questions by The Young Company (Singapore) 

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SRT’s The Young Company presents The Three Questions, a modern fable that follows an incorrigibly angst-ridden teen’s journey of redemption as he meets an eccentric ice cream seller aunty with life changing philosophy at her fingertips. In between the main narrative, cast members pad the time with monologues commenting on the pressures of living as a teen in Singapore.

Directed by Daniel Jenkins, the main character of The Three Questions is initially something of an anti-hero: Benjamin Koh is well cast, armed with a perpetual scowl and snapping at everyone he comes into contact with. Over the course of the performance, there are some interesting ensemble based scenes, such as the entire cast supporting our protagonist in their arms as he ‘swims’ or characters looking up one by one (in a domino effect) as they watch the commotion on a train, and the cast has obviously spent much time in rehearsals to get their chemistry just in sync.

Many of the cast members show plenty of potential in their performances, and in some monologues, manage to portray the deep yearning and frustration within so many teens today when they feel completely misunderstood, or out of place with the world. One hopes to see some of them continue performing in future productions, and keep up the good work they’ve been doing so far and further enhance their acting chops as they grow.

Lines by Deep Acting Productions (Vietnam)

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The night ended off with Vietnamese theatre company Deep Acting Productions with their period piece Lines. Directed by Marc Valentine, Lines is set in Vietnam a few years after the 1975 Liberation War, and explores themes of truth and deception, and the extent one can go towards building a happy family.

As Lines opened, we were treated to the cast singing a popular Vietnamese ditty. Every single cast member is in possession of a great melodic voice, and this opening number got Lines off to a good start. Lines itself has a solid and intriguing storyline that was sufficiently explored in the limited performance time: Ong Minh (Anh Minh) strikes a deal with elderly Ba Nam (To To, also the playwright), promising to find her daughter after she disappeared following a bombing 15 years ago. When she shows up in the form of Ngoc (Bao Truc), Ba Nam’s son Tai (Nguyen Tai) begins to have his suspicions.

To To no doubt gave the best performance of the show as a mother desperate to see her daughter again and formed a believable onstage mother-son relationship with Nguyen Tai, who did a commendable job balancing exasperation with her unflinching belief yet still maintaining a sense of concern. The quiet Bao Truc did a good job of bringing across the innocence of Ba Nam’s daughter, while Anh Minh cut an intimidating, commanding figure as a cunning man hiding more than he let on. Finally, although Xuan Loc as the extravagant, effeminate Thay Tu was a little over the top at times, he shone when he reigned in the character’s shrill shouts to become the very image of a powerful, domineering madam.

Ultimately, Lines is a bold attempt at creating a deeply personal story set against the epic backdrop of war, and feels refreshingly original and well-acted. Given more development and tweaks, Lines has the potential to go even further and really leave an incredibly emotional impact in future productions.

Performances attended 13/10/17

The Asian Youth Theatre Festival takes place at *Scape from 13th – 15th October. Tickets to the Asian Youth Theatre Festival performances and workshops available from Peatix For more information and the full lineup, check out their website here

Look out for our coverage of the remaining five plays from the rest of the companies taking part in the inaugural AYTF this weekend!

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