Arts Review Singapore Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: I and You by Gateway Arts

Discovering the basic human need for each other. 

Pronouns are an important, but often overlooked part of the English language. For one – they’re an indicator of identity, not just in terms of gender with he/she/they, but even the simple act of saying “I” establishes a sense of self. Saying “you” establishes acknowledgement of existence of another. And most of all, “we” allows for the end of individualism in this increasingly distant world, and establishes a sense of connection and togetherness in belonging to the same group.

Pronouns also happen to be the topic of the aptly titled I and You, Lauren Gunderson’s hit play about two teenage classmates who bond over a Walt Whitman project. Directed by Samantha Scott-Blackhall in its Singapore premiere, the play opens with Caroline (Evangel Wong) minding her own business on a lazy Sunday afternoon in her room. Her classmate Anthony (Zulfiqar Izzudin) bursts in with a dramatic entrance, clutching Leaves of Grass and a terrible hand-made poster.

Naturally, this makes for a rather awkward first meeting filled with suspicion and caution. Why would star basketball player and student Anthony want to work with introverted and antisocial Caroline, known for missing school due to her liver disease? And after all, Caroline and Anthony are worlds apart – one’s a Virgo and the other is a Taurus, one takes Spanish and the other French as a third language. They have literally never spoken to each other before in class, and even with Anthony right in front of her, all Caroline can think about is social media and a need to remain connected to the WiFi.

Petrina Dawn Tan’s set works to make this initial distance feel even more pronounced, by clearly establishing the room as belonging to Caroline. Details of her life are dotted all around, from an entire wall of printed photographs, posters of Elvis (her favourite singer), alongside stuffed toys and a special ‘chou chou’ in the form of a turtle that makes the space feel lived in and real. When Anthony first enters, it feels like a clear invasion of privacy, and Caroline, wanting to defend her territory, desperately tries to establish her sense of control by setting clear boundaries and rules.

It’s no wonder Caroline begins to question both his intentions, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his sudden appearance; her own mother lets him in without too many questions, and the clock on the wall stops precisely when Anthony enters her room, as if his arrival stops time itself. It’s a strange locked room situation as the two remain stuck in the room for the majority of the play, unwittingly working towards an unknown goal that might finally take them out of this limbo.

But this is no absurdist play, and at the heart of I and You is not existential crisis, but the idea of connection. Somehow, despite all of these obstacles and Caroline’s declaration that she doesn’t need him, Anthony still chooses to partner up with her, and get through the project together. Against her protests, Anthony is exactly what Caroline needs in her life right now. As the hours go by, Anthony manages to chip away at Caroline’s icy exterior, and eventually coaxes her into opening up and bridging their divide over common topics and small talk that leads to big philosophical discussions about life and living. From her passion for spur-of-the-moment photography, to her dream of going to New York to pursue her studies, after a particularly riveting visualisation exercise as he shares his love for jazz with her, Caroline comes alive when she gets the chance to finally connect with someone else, and validate her hopes and very existence.

All of this is nicely tied together by Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Despite being a school assignment, Whitman’s words go beyond mere homework, and the process of reading and close analysis allows Caroline to engage in passionate debate with Anthony. More importantly, as a poet who worked in the hospitals and witnessed countless deaths during the Civil War, Whitman’s very existence and writing is a reminder that amidst the pain and suffering, hope and beauty in life persists. For Caroline, who grapples with her own mortality on a day to day basis, this is of integral importance, so much that she decides to dedicate an emotionally-charged speech about why Whitman’s a ‘national badass’ to the project. As a projector displays photographs, memories, and slides onto the blank poster, Caroline’s speech becomes a transcendent reminder of how it’s the little things that matter most, that keep us holding on to life.

Moving adroitly between the mundane to the silly, from dramatic to ideological, Gunderson’s script allows big themes like life, death, purpose and motivation accessible and relatable through these two teens. Moreover, the dialogue flows naturally, choosing to forgo popular lingo yet remaining emblematic of teenspeak even 9 years on from when it was first written. Much of this is due to the way Samantha Scott-Blackhall has directed both Evangel and Zul play their roles, each one encapsulating their respective characters in all their complex nuances.

As a director leading two relatively new actors, Samantha Scott-Blackhall has effectively mentored them to bring out the best of their abilities. There is a high degree of trust in giving them the responsibility of performing such an emotionally-nuanced script with multiple layers, and Samantha’s guidance allows them to never miss a beat and reach their full potential. Being relatively new to the scene, Evangel Wong brings a degree of fresh energy to her performance, shifting emotions between hysterics to whipsmart wit with Caroline. Not only does she show off her silly side and an endearing enthusiasm when she sings along to Elvis’ ‘Great Balls of Fire’; she delivers Caroline’s presentation with requisite gravity previously unseen that brings the play to an emotional denouement.

Meanwhile, Zul leans in to a more pronounced Malay accent, clearly establishing his character’s race, and highlighting the two characters’ differences even more. He confidently captures the seemingly endless positivity and sensitivity of an all around good guy, even comforting Caroline under the starlight in their final moments together. It is impossible not to eventually come around to liking him, as Caroline does, offering patience, a listening ear, a constant smile and an aura of wisdom in all he does. For two young actors to helm a dialogue-heavy script for 90 minutes onstage is no easy feat, having to maintain character and chart each one’s journey, plumbing the depths of emotion, but both Evangel and Zul have done it magnificently.

Towards the end of the play, Caroline reveals her stuffed turtle’s secret – a projector on its back that can display a mini-planetarium, we think of how much significance a simple stuffed toy can hold for us, a relic from childhood that contains memories of countless nights spent growing up. Sitting amidst the stars, Caroline’s problems seem insignificant, yet at the same time, we think of how she herself holds a universe of experiences, limitless potential in her future still.

I and You then is a reminder that it’s not always easy to break down another person’s walls, but as with all good things, it comes with time and patience, and much like the play itself, has a terrific payoff by the end. When Anthony bursts into Caroline’s room, he proudly quotes Whitman, declaring “I and this mystery, here we stand.” By the end of the play, Caroline is no longer a mystery, but a friend and more; the “I” is no longer, and only “we” remains, ready to face the future together as one.

I and You played from 20th to 28th May 2022 at the Gateway Theatre Blackbox.

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