The final performance of each batch of Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) graduating students always finishes with a bang, and Our Town is no different. Directed by Arts NMP and Dramabox Artistic Director Kok Heng Leun in his first solo directorial effort since 2015, the production manages to bring Thornton Wilder’s classic play to new heights, highlighting the play’s underlying concerns about distance and lost time.
Kok’s vision of Our Town, despite still being overtly American in text, transports the action to a more ambiguous, minimalist presentation. Kok imbues the nearly 80 year old text with a newfound melancholy as characters speak into empty space as they address each other, unable to physically face each other head on in Act 1. Even when they adopt a more naturalistic acting style in Act 2, their communication is once again ‘hindered’ by each actor adopting their own mother tongue, immediately alienating audience members who do not understand the respective languages. (This is already hinted at prior to the show, where announcements to turn off one’s phone and beeping devices are repeated over and over in languages ranging from Mandarin to even French.)
Yet, despite these seemingly ineffective communication styles, the denizens of Grover’s Corners get by somehow, always perfectly understanding each other. Well-rehearsed, one could almost swear that they were in fact sharing some kind of universal language with the way they spoke to each other without interruption, each line following naturally after the other. Some of the actors in fact, seem much more confident speaking in their mother tongue, finding stronger emotional nuances in Act 2.
Regina Foo as Mrs Gibbs, for example, is a natural fit for her naggy mother character, her use of Mandarin taking on the lilts of gossip and maternal chiding. For Desmond Soh and Uma Katju as young couple George and Emily, their contrasting language allows for Our Town to enter a type of magic realism, where love itself overcomes all obstacles, and language no longer becomes a form of exclusion. Both Soh and Katju, as the play’s central characters, possess good onstage chemistry, allowing for their eventual marriage to feel believable and their relationship one you’d root for.
These perceived distances ultimately manifest themselves physically in the final graveyard scene, where the themes of cruel mortality and the undeniable passage of time become all the more evident in the wake of the previous two acts. This is exemplified when Emily (in a moving, expressive performance from Uma Katju) paws at a projection of her mother (Mathilde Bagein) on a screen behind her, the impossible distance between the dead and living, past and present felt through the distance between digital image and physical reality.
Kok Heng Leun is incredibly ambitious, and Our Town goes even further beyond its traditional staging with an entire third of its runtime dedicated to an additional physical theatre sequence. In some ways, this production of Our Town feels almost like a double bill – where the second part represents a modern, physical theatre response to play itself. Cast members initially play a theatre game, rushing to the wings to change back to their daily clothes while numbers are called out for them to assume an improvised tableaux back onstage.
Cast members are then highlighted in turn, each performing precise, well-choreographed physical theatre movement across the stage (choreographed by Koh Wan Ching), either solo or in pairs. Simultaneously, text of memories run in reverse reading order across the screen behind them, impossible to understand as a whole. Many of these movements seem to indicate either physical or mental distress and pain, with frenzied, compulsive a frequent theme throughout. Additionally, as cast members fall to the ground, others choose not to assist, merely stepping over them instead. One imagines that these movements serve to further contrast the idyllic world of Our Town with the stressful, fast-paced modern world we live in now, with little time for neighbourliness.
Besides being an intercultural and multilingual performance, Our Town was also an incredibly multidisciplinary performance. Kok’s production employs touches of Brechtian Epic Theatre, where the illusion of theatre is stripped away by actors changing costumes onstage and the start and end of each act clearly announced either out loud or projected onscreen. This is also seen in Act 1, where actors hold scripts in their hands and are simply clad in plain black attire, almost as if they are still in rehearsals and relying solely on the text and its delivery to provoke emotional response.
The production’s design elements are also excellent, with some of the brightest creatives having been involved in the process. As Our Town opens, we’re aurally guided around the district as light depicting the time of day beams down upon an incredibly detailed miniature model of the town by Chan Silei. Behind the model are two screens, playing slideshows of somewhat disturbing negative images (designed by Jasmine Ng), a corruption of normalcy and a total contrast to the folksy sentiment that’s simultaneously playing out onstage. These images later give way to a viewfinder to the monochrome world of the living in Act 3, cleverly utilizing a series of portrait shots of the cast and voiceovers to ironically give them the impression of appearing spectral instead. The classic 1920s costumes donned by the cast in Acts 2 and 3 are also expertly designed by Max Tan and Yuan Zhi Ying of local fashion label MAX.TAN, well-fitting and perfectly reminiscent of the era. Finally, Bani Haykal’s sound design is also extremely evocative, at times employing an almost tribal like drum track to create tension when it interrupts a vocal track straight from the roaring 20s.
Visually rich and undeniably inventive in its staging, Kok Heng Leun and ITI’s Our Town is the perfect update to an old script for a modern Singaporean audience. Drawing out its inherent melancholy and concerns with the fragility of life and fleeting nature of time, Our Town is a timely reminder to cherish all we know and love now before it’s too late, and echoes a deep-seated nostalgia for a simpler time and friendlier people. As these students soon graduate, one hopes they’ll bring all they’ve learnt with them into the arts scene and continually strive to improve further; this is promising stuff we’ve seen, and we’re sure that this won’t be the last we hear of from any of them as we follow them into their next endeavours.
Performance attended 9/11/17
Photo Credit: Bernie Ng
Our Town plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 9th – 11th November 2017. Tickets available from Peatix