A valiant attempt at dealing with the spectre of death.
Death never comes easily, especially when it’s unexpected. How then does one learn to process it, and not allow it to completely consume you and those around you? Drama Box’s third graduating batch of ARTivate members attempts to answer that, with their original play Dancing with Fish in the Midnight Zone.
Directed by Koh Wan Qing, the play follows a mother (Loh Wan Qi) and her daughter Rene (Vanessa Poh), as they go about their daily lives in the wake of her older daughter’s suicide. Still grieving over the loss, the mother continues to prepare dinner for her absent daughter, and finds herself lost in a mobile game, distracted from work, much to Rene’s chagrin. But when her late daughter’s best friend Bernice (Teoh Jie Yu) shows up with a bag left behind, old wounds open up, and all three must confront the pain they’ve been keeping locked away.
Tackling such a sensitive subject can be a difficult affair, and ARTivate does all they can in their power to make sure it is handled delicately and honestly. It’s always heartening to know that the youth of today are so hyperaware of the need to be more sensitive of such issues, and the production even provided an onsite counsellor to step in should audience members feel distressed during the play.
But while ARTivate has all the right intentions and potential with this project, the execution of the work still has some way to go in delivering the full emotional impact. Much of this comes down to how the team doesn’t seem sure of the artistic direction of the play, where it constantly shifts between melodrama and surrealism, but never commits enough time to either to fully immerse us in the work.
Though all three central characters have been written to showcase a range of layers to their personality, perhaps due to the quality of the performances, the naturalistic scenes in the play feel stiff or scripted, and it becomes difficult to fully grasp the degree of pain each of them is going through. The overall narrative of three women learning to heal is sound, but the journey it takes to get there feels dragged out or one note. Arguments between the mother and Rene begin to feel repetitive after some time, as they circle back to their disagreement over whether to forget the past, or hold on tightly to it, and in a similar vein, encounters with Bernice almost always end with at least one of them breaking down, yelling, or locking themselves in their room.
Where the play shows potential is in its surreal elements. From the very first scene, even before the play begins, we get a sense of this, as we see a laptop in a mini-fridge, playing a documentary about the mortality rates of sea stars. The ensemble cast (Wun Yun Fang, Lim Ci Xuan, Lee Pei Qin and Wang Yingbei), play various sea creatures who weave in and out of scenes, and explain the play’s title – the midnight zone refers to a part of the ocean where no sunlight reaches, and becomes a metaphor for the depths of depression the protagonists sink to. he main problem is that the only reason fish are used as a metaphor is because of the deceased’s love of fish, but for the characters still alive, none of them have an actual relation to the sea, making this metaphor feel disjointed from the rest of the play.
Certainly, there’s plenty of moments that could go further – an interesting scene attempts to deconstruct the idea of therapy, while another scene mentions sea stars inexplicably leaving parts of themselves across the sea floor. But these moments are often left underdeveloped or fleeting, and seem more like passing thoughts rather than sustained ideas. Ultimately, Dancing with Fish In The Midnight Zone is good in its intent, but tries to showcase too much in too little time, pulling us away from its main focus of grief and healing.
Photo Credit: Alvin Ho
Dancing with Fish in the Midnight Zone played from 24th to 26th June 2021 at Practice Space @ The Theatre Practice, 54 Waterloo St, Singapore, 187953. A digital screening of the show will be available on 30th and 31st July 2021, with tickets available from Eventbrite