Arts Interview Preview Singapore Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: OK Land by Circle Theatre

Banding together against the monopoly.

If you’ve ever step foot into Bangkok, you’ll be well aware that there’s a convenience store on every corner, perfect for grabbing a cool drink when the temperature peaks. But for the segment of society that can’t even afford it, that’s simply not an option for them – who is the store really convenient for?

Streaming as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, Circle Theatre’s OK Land teases out the dark underbelly of the innocuous convenience store, taking a closer look at the system at large and our positions as individuals within it. To do this, OK Land is set in a fictitious convenience store of the same name, a perfect locale to watch citizens of different socioeconomic classes and backgrounds clash, as they attempt to band together and help a woman in need.

Staged at Bangkok’s 6060 Arts Space, much work has gone into uncanny realism of art director Monsuntorn Surach’s set design, where the audience members are seated within the ‘convenience store’ itself, complete with a counter, shelves lined with countless products clearly labelled with OK Land’s logo, and a glass door that announces a cheery ‘Ok!” every time a customer enters or exits. OK Land manager Boss (Chanut Pongpanich) and employee Joy (Skaow Karnkornkamol) are dressed in identical blue and yellow polo tees, OK Land’s uniform, and amidst a pandemic taking place across the country, just want to get by. Performing the OK Land jingle (set to the chicken dance song) at the start of each day, their lives are the same day in, day out, as they wonder if there’s any better alternative. Meanwhile, they ignore the resident ghost (Bhumibhat Thavornsiri) haunting the store, film camera in hand as he darts about.

The customers that OK Land serves are a varied bunch – there’s Met (Athapol Anunthavorasakul), a man who’s just returned from ‘Trump Land’ and is no longer used to local laws and unquestioning mindsets; Pipe (Wisarut Homhuan), a radical youth who harbours anti-establishment ideals; and Boom (Rawiorn Swasdisuk), a social media food influencer and a coveted OK Land Platinum member. Altogether, there’s a delicate balance OK Land maintains between employees and employers, where the line between classes is dissolved as long as you can pay for your purchases.

This careful equilibrium is disrupted however, when a desperate aunty (Sumontha Suanpholaat) attempts to steal from the store one evening, prompting the employees to stop her, and hear her out. It turns out the aunty is a former OK Land employee who was laid off, her entire family unable to work due to various reasons. Even with the government giving out rations, the amount is insufficient to feed everyone, and the aunty is unable to move fast enough to collect her share before they run out.

Hearing her plight, both the OK Land employees and customers band together to try to help her, whether it’s purchasing food for her, putting her story out via a live broadcast on social media, or attempting to call higher management at OK Land. None of these are particularly effective solutions, with the latter in particular greeted by a confused employee who cites bureaucratic processes preventing the company from offering any form of assistance.

Earlier on in the play, Boom complains to the staff that OK Land no longer stocks a product, having replaced it with their own in-house brand. For all its shiny, air-conditioned interior, the truth behind convenience stores is that they’re all run by huge, faceless corporations who couldn’t care less what their customers want, as long as they still turn a profit. Likewise when it comes to employees, in their heartless eyes, all humans are disposable, mere cogs in the machine who will never empathise with people on the ground.

While it could afford slightly more character development for some of the roles, there is evidently plenty of thought that has gone into playwright Nuttamon Pramsumran’s script, from the symbolism behind a convenience store, and even the metaphor of the ‘zombie ant disease’ plaguing the country makes us think back to how ants mindlessly work their entire lives. Nuttamon also captures plenty of recognisable character traits in her dialogue, while director Paspawisa Jewpattanagul leads her actors to nail their limited but focused roles, and manages to bring out a palpable tension in the air from the moment the aunty enters the store to the very end.

When Boss finally realises the hard truth, there really isn’t any other choice but to quit, reflecting the growing desire of Thai youths to emigrate and leave the country. As he packs a bag and exits the store, we watch as Pipe prepares to join a protest, and understand that with a problem so deeply embedded in the system, there are no clear solutions. Some choose to fight on, while others pursue greener pastures, and others are left to accept their predicament. But at the end of it all, OK Land makes it clear that things are certainly not ok, and if we get a chance to help ourselves or others, then we should by all means, for the sake of survival and the hope of change.

Photo Credit: Pathipol Ratchataarpa

OK Land streams online from 12th to 23rd January 2022 as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. More information available here

The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers runs from 12th to 23rd January 2022. Tickets and full line-up available here

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