Arts Chinese Theatre Review

★★★☆☆ Review: Quest – The White Hare by Toy Factory Productions

One last, mishmashed hurrah for a fast-disappearing art form.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Goh Boon Teck)6
Script (Goh Boon Teck)6
Performance (Gwee Lay Hua, Clement Yeo, Doreen Toh, Tiara Yap, Timothy Wan, Wayne Lim, Wendy Toh, Asher Kang)7
Music Composition (August Lum)7
Lighting Design (Gabriel Chan)7
Set Design (Goh Abigail)7
Sound Design (Sandra Tay)7
Costume/Make-up Design (Max Tan/Hong Ru Wang)7
Total54/80 (68%)
Final Score:★★★☆☆

As much as cultural groups and governing bodies are trying their best to preserve traditional art forms, the ever-quickening pace of modernity all but threatens to wipe them out forever. Of note are Chinese dialect operas, at risk of disappearing forever primarily because of increasingly infrequent use of the language, leading to less audience members and less artists capable or even willing to put on such shows. Not to mention, an already competitive arts scene where everyone is fighting for physical rehearsal and performance venues, and such productions no longer become financially sustainable.

In Toy Factory’s latest production, artistic director Goh Boon Teck has crafted a brand new script that sees a ragtag bunch of Singaporeans coming together to stage a large-scale Hokkien opera, at the behest of the community centre’s direction, in a bid to justify funding. Gathering a member of parliament (Timothy Wan), a kindergarten teacher (Tiara Yap), a coffee shop cleaner (Wendy Toh), a junior college student (Clement Yeo), community centre staff member (Wayne Lim) and an actual opera veteran (Gwee Lay Hua), one eccentric theatre director (Doreen Toh) leads this motley crew through generational, class and language differences, to recreate The White Hare.

Quest – The White Hare‘s premise is in all honesty, a noble one, rich with potential to hit emotional high points and persuade audience members of the cultural significance of Hokkien operas, making it worth fighting for. There certainly is a clear intent behind the piece, in terms of educating the audience on certain Mandarin or Hokkien terms, and attempting to bridge the gap between the past and present, where characters frequently clash over differences and misunderstandings. In addition, the first half of the play is intent on explaining and clarifying The White Hare’s major plot points and beats, such that audience members will not be lost when the second half comes along.

However, by opting for a slapstick, comedic approach towards the play, with mostly one-dimensional characters without development or a strong central storyline to keep us on our toes, lukewarm puns or in-jokes (like an odd reference to Drama Box’s Ubin) makes it difficult to become attached to the play, in terms of its story or its characters. Particularly in need of more dimension is the eccentric and tempestuous director Wu, who continually pushes the cast by criticising them. Doreen Toh does her best to amp up the character as much as possible, with a humorous scene where she continually exits by one door and enters by another, while other characters, such as Timothy Wan’s MP or Tiara Yap’s kindergarten teacher, are simply not given much to work with.

That’s not to say the cast doesn’t try, and each cast member embodies their respective stock characters well-enough. Among them, the standout would be Gwee Lay Hua as the Hokkien opera veteran, who, while not having too many lines, always feels like a warm presence and pillar of calm amidst the younger cast members’ antics. Gwee also feels the most experienced and showcases mastery over the movements, and all eyes are on her each time she performs. Elsewhere, Wendy Toh makes for a fun watch as the loudmouthed and earnest coffee shop cleaner, while Clement Yeo as the enthusiastic and scholarly Hwa Chong student is a character people would likely recognise from their own school days. Wayne Lim delivers a relatable performance as the staff member trying to hold the whole production together, all while fighting his own garbled language skills.

Being a play-within-a-play, the production also finds itself saddled with the difficult task of ensuring there is enough build-up to the final ‘opera’ itself. Certainly, this is the more exciting half of the show – Goh Abigail’s set transforms from what feels like a clinical waiting room to reveal a giant glowing moon hanging above, while Max Tan’s colourful costumes finally get their time in the spotlight, as the characters come out in full opera regalia. There is joy from 7-year old performer Asher Kang opening this segment with his wushu moves while dressed as a white hare, and the cast too ramp up their emotions and skills to ensure the show is a successful one. But with the first half already feeling somewhat bland, the sudden shift into the second act feels abrupt, their rise from complete opera amateurs to masters hard to believe and undeserved, with a clear sense of bonding or togetherness missing before segueing here.

As the show-within-a-show draws to a close, the cast members receive their flowers for a job well done, before we turn our attention to the moon, suddenly rippling and deservedly putting the spotlight on Gwee Lay Hua, performing as a silhouette behind the screen. Looking around at the mostly older audience who genuinely understand the Hokkien without subtitles, laugh and fervently applaud for Gwee, we too recognise her undeniable talent, and feel a pang at how soon all this will be lost. Alas, this production too seems to realise that there is too little too late, and by the time we begin to mourn the loss of tradition, it will already be gone. Quest – The White Hare then, acts more as a final attempt to reach new audiences, and serves the purpose of a last hurrah for the tradition, with its light-hearted approach rather than a dramatic one.

Photos by Ken Cheong, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Quest – The White Hare plays from 3rd to 4th March 2023 at the Esplanade Theatre. Tickets available here

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