Waiting rooms can feel like hell.
Over the years, purgatory onstage has taken a great many forms, from the horrific to the mundane. With Stanley Seah’s The Transition Room, the face of limbo takes an absurdist approach towards the middle ground, as we open with four characters finding themselves in a bare, abstract room, each dressed in shades of grey, with no memory or knowledge of why they’re here, or what they’re waiting for.
While this is almost certainly a nod to both Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit), The Transition Room breaks monotony and eases audiences into the narrative by having protagonist Mike (Christer Aplin) charting a path deeper and deeper into the unknown, unwittingly having embarked on a Wonderland-like journey as each new room Mike enters introduces him to a new set of rules, conventions and characters. As the protagonist, we’re meant to align ourselves with Mike, often a difficult task as his character comes off as whiny, uninteresting and at times, even a creep. It is the characters he meets however, each one a thinly veiled allegory, that are far more interesting with their esoteric, often volatile behaviour, with each step further into the metaphorical rabbit hole leaving us curiouser and curiouser to find out just who or what he’ll encounter next.
While The Transition Room’s script brims with fascinating original ideas and there are occasional moments of absurd brilliance, they are betrayed by the choice not to go fully and boldly into the abstract, falling back on overt reveals that undo the mysticism and open-endedness it builds up, or specific references to current affairs that allow it to lose its timelessness. Certain scenes and lines also feel clumsy in their execution, with a nightmarish transition sequence having the cast hiss and whisper questions and doubts, and a moment they choose to break the fourth wall reminiscent of theatrical tricks a more amateur production might use instead.
It is to the credit of the actors then that this relatively young cast is the biggest revelation of The Transition Room, with most of them pushing past the script’s weaknesses to deliver compelling performances and convincing us that Singapore’s next generation of actors might have hope yet. Tan Hui Er, in particular, shines in her role as a masseuse, using her innocence as a powerful lure before biting our heads off with a snap character swap, while it is evident Kaykay Nizam has committed fully to each of his characters, using his explosive energy and unbridled confidence to make each line arresting.
The Transition Room’s production elements are deceptively simple, yet work together effectively to create a metamorphic world constantly shifting, a distinct sense of unease created from how we are thrust into another room the moment we get comfortable with the one before it. Vick Low’s instrumental soundtrack crackles from time to time, as if suggesting the instability of the very atmosphere, while Tai Zi Feng’s precise lighting obscures and reveals specific squares of space to play with the size of the Drama Centre Black Box, setting the physical boundaries actors are confined by.
The set (designed by Vivien Lau), comprising just four black boxes, easily becomes a couch, a platform, and even a massage table at one point when left to our imaginations. Microphones are placed at either end of the stage, allowing actors, under cover of darkness, to become the disembodied voice of an omnipotent being, represented by a giant, glowing halo above the audience, the ever-watchful eyes and ears of a celestial Big Brother.
What The Transition Room leaves us with then, is a flawed thought experiment, coming off as an oversimplified look at existentialism as it attempts to straddle both the abstract and the obvious to glean the best of both worlds. As much as it has potential, The Transition Room feels like a concept that still required more finessing to truly feel like a work to remember. One hopes that the creative team and cast take its own message to heart, and continue striving on amidst the sheer absurdity of life, with the hopes of end up in a better place than from whence they started.
Photo Credit: Toy Factory
Performance attended 21/2/19
The Transition Room plays from 21st February to 2nd March at the Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets available from Eventbrite