Arts Interview Preview Singapore Theatre

★★★☆☆ Review: Why Be Good When You Can Be The Best? by Deonn Yang

Modern fable about the productivity trap of the endless rat race.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Deonn Yang)7
Script (Deonn Yang6
Performance (Chng Xin Xuan, Eve Voigtlander, Mitchell Fang, Sindhura Kalidas, Suhaili Safari)7
Lighting Design (Emanorwatty Salleh)7
Set Design (Wong Chee Wai)7
Total34/50 (68%)
Final Score:★★★☆☆

Over the course of the pandemic, the idea of work has shifted immeasurably. With the rise of flexible working conditions, be it in terms of remote working or a more self-directed schedule, the typical office hours and morning commute almost felt like they were a thing of the past. But with borders re-opening and employers insisting on going back to old ways again, it’s no wonder those who’d gotten used to the new normal want things to stay that way, and increasing resistance to work.

With that in mind, Deonn Yang’s new show Why Be Good When You Can Be The Best? paints an interesting depiction of the modern office, feeling like a curious contemporary Singaporean fable warning of the everlasting rat race and how much it can change a person. In the play, we follow protagonist Min (Chng Xin Xuan), an ordinary office worker who excels at her job, while somehow maintaining a regular routine of starting the day with her favourite Kuki Kubes cereal, spending time with her neighbours, and maintaining a smile throughout her time at the office, before coming home to feed the stray cat at the void deck.

But when she takes up an opportunity to participate in a televised game show to vie for the title of Best Employee Ever, Min is faced with multiple challenges that overturn her entire life philosophy – how is it possible that one can maximise efficiency while still taking time to be a nice person, if one isn’t spending every waking hour being productive?

As a relatively young theatremaker, writer/director Deonn Yang still feels like she’s finding her personal voice and style when it comes to creating new work. This is clearly felt in Why Be Good When You Can Be The Best? with the myriad of theatrical techniques and surreal sequences she introduces into the otherwise straightforward script. There are some interesting uses of shadow play to create the city landscape, harkening back to a simpler time before high tech projections and video work, while even the stray cat is performed via rod and shadow puppetry, giving it a heightened sense of realism and cuteness.

However, as endearing as these sequences are, some of them do feel like they are there to pad the runtime, rather than tightening the play as a whole or expanding the scope that the play is covering. A solo scene dedicated to the cat (puppeteered by Sindhura Kalidas), for example, is adorable, but has no real dramatic thrust. Similarly, a dream sequence where Suhaili Safari plays a contestant in a singing reality competition show allows her to show off her vocal prowess in an emotional rendition of ‘Watermelon Sugar’, but lacks any real link to the narrative at hand.

As for the gameshow itself, Deonn has fun satirising the office grind, with ‘extreme’ games involving calculation using Excel formulas, or even typing a letter of termination to a colleague. These could however, be taken further, and lack any real stakes when Min debates between doing what is necessary to win, or being true to herself, with the portrayal of each game needing more drama. As much as the actors try their best to sell the illusion, rather than typing away at invisible laptops, one feels that more could have been done to heighten the tension, whether utilising the screen behind, sound effects, or even actually having physical laptops in front of them.

Nonetheless, the rest of the play makes for a comfortable, easy watch that reminds us of how there is more to life than just work. Even if the story is a little predictable, Deonn’s care for her cast stands out, evident from how much fun they seem to be having in every scene. As a lead, Xin Xuan has the difficult task of making sure her character is admirable yet believable, and manages to make Min a character we root for on her journey of self-discovery, with the stark contrast between her initial happy-go-lucky personality and her later haughty, aloof one.

Suhaili Safari is memorable in her role as Min’s long-suffering tissue paper aunty neighbour who doubles as the narrator, while Mitchell Fang, Sindhura Kalidas and Eve Voigtlander play a delightful trio of office goons who represent various workplace stereotypes. Eve Voigtlander in particular, does a bang up job of playing the hostess with the mostest when she takes on an over-the-top, Vanna White-like role during the game show while donning a bombastic dress made of cheerleading pom-poms, expanding her growing, versatile repertoire of memorable characters.

While it doesn’t add anything particularly new to the ongoing conversation about work and labour, the play feels like it has legs to continue expanding and extending what it hopes to do. One hopes to see Deonn similarly continue to apply herself as she grows as a theatremaker and take the good from this production, and go even bigger in her vision and execution in future original works. Plus, by the end, Why Be Good When You Can Be The Best? still manages to stick the ending, with a simple but effective scene that puts a nice bow on the entire production. Rather than taking up a job offer, Min chooses to go back to her own ways and spend time with her neighbour and cat instead, proving that sometimes being good is better than being the best.

Photo Credit: Deonn Yang

Why Be Good When You Can Be The Best? played from 12th to 15th January 2023 at the NAFA Studio Theatre as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023. More information available here

The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023 ran from 4th to 15th January 2023 across various venues. More information available here

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