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Theatre Review (Singapore): The Perfection of Ten by the Esplanade Presents Program

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The Perfection of Ten, under the Esplanade Presents Program, ran at the Esplanade Theatre Studios from September 13-15 2012 and starred Ang Hui Bin, Patricia Mok, Rizman Putra, and Tan Shou Chen who played a variety of characters, even playing themselves at times.

Ten established Singapore playwrights were invited to reflect on their experiences as theatre-makers and their notions of perfection. The team of writers were: Desmond Sim, Ng How Wee, Irfan Kasban, Jason Wee, Jean Tay, Kaylene Tan, Li Xie, Verena Tay, Ng Yi-Sheng, and Zizi Azah. They set out to capture a perspective on life on Earth, in Singapore, and in the theatre, through their own 10 minutes of stage time. Ten stage items from past productions of established local theatre companies also helped create a world in which these characters – both real and fictitious – resided.

Experimental and without a consistent narrative, The Perfection of Ten was made up of vignettes all pointing to a theme of “perfection”. Ang Hui Bin and Rizman Putra played a married couple with a daughter (Tan Shou Chen in drag). The mother (Ang) expected everything to be perfect, always capturing her family’s life in happy photos that belied a different emotion altogether. In the end the mother couldn’t hold onto this empty vision of total perfection. Humourously in metafiction style, the father (Putra) kept forgetting his lines, relying on reading the script from his phone at places, thereby obliterating the distinction between actor and character.

In another vignette, Patricia Mok played a statue whose “perfect” pose as a monument was affected when Putra made her laugh. At one point, when she found Putra taking too long with his soliloquys, Mok collapsed from her pose and got down from her podium, complaining to the real-life director of this play, Sean Tobin, who was seated at the corner throughout.

Tobin and Mok then went off on each other as their real personalities, after which Mok gave a poignant speech about how trapped she was when she was contracted at Mediacorp and how the orgainsation had artistes like herself do work such as hosting or doing genres and programs they were not suited for. She said she felt caged, as she pointed to the poles around the stage.

Mok went on to say that she was also tired of being pigeonholed as a comedian, and instead wanted to make people think.

I wish Mok had had more time and space in this performance to really wrench her heart out, as something tells me she was holding back, and inside were probably more insidious tales of how the industry and Mediacorp have treated her.

Then the play took a weird angle, as it truly turned darkly experimental, with each of the four actors slowly coming out with chairs, some gesturing and appearing to talk to themselves as they put the chairs in a row. As they did this, multiple-choice questions were flashed on the backdrop such as “What do you think the chairs are for?” and “Do you understand what is going on?” with pretty hilarious answer choices such as “You are prententious” and “WTF?!”.

Was this segment supposed to make us think, as Mok had just told us she wanted us to do? Or was it a swipe at us, the audience, as when Mok was fighting with Tobin she remarked to the director that the audience would regret paying $25 to see this play? After all, nobody (aside from one lady) got up to leave during what might have been a nonsensical vignette included just to test the audience. Were we really the ones being made fun of in the end? Well, at least it all got us thinking.

Then, the house lights went on, and Tobin invited a couple of theatre practitioners who happened to be in the audience to join him and the cast on stage for a question-and-answer session with the audience. While Tobin took suggestions from the audience, Irfan Kasban was supposed to be writing a play for the last act. One audience member said he wanted nothing, even no actors on stage. Someone else wanted more politics and sex. Another wanted to see the cast using the poles in the theatre more, and someone else added: more pole dancing.

Tan Shou Chen then spoke about the value of having threatre critics (breaking the Fifth Wall of theatre perhaps), showed us some of his bad reviews from the past (one critic said he looked constipated, another said he should know there are more expressions than just one), and he said he learned from them ultimately (phew!).

Then Tan went into a rant about having feedback forms after watching a performance, which turned into a rock song, “Fuck the Survey,” which ended with the cast flinging their chairs around rock style, and Ang dropping to her knees screaming “Fuuuuuuuuuuuck” with her fingers in gangsta rock sign. The whole audience was howling with laughter at the spectacle.  

Also strange was Tobin intermittently screaming out words such as “hole in the heart” and something about a son. In the end, Tobin squashed a tomato on his chest! Did his son die? Was the “son” symbolic for his passion for the theatre, and did his passion (or son) die? Was it the son with the hole in his heart, or was the hole in Tobin’s heart his desire to make the perfect play, an impossible task? And in the end did he “kill” (the smashed tomato) himself because he can’t achieve that? 

The performance ended with two more vignettes. The first had a dying mother played by Mok asking her son (Tan) to lead her to the perfect place – the Esplanade – so she could die perfectly looking at the perfect skyline. However, getting there, all she sees is construction around her and not the beautiful sight she remembers. At the same time, another couple meet and reconcile.

The last segment was the one written by Irfan Kasban based on the audience’s earlier suggestions of not having actors, but having sex, politics, and pole dancing – a tough list of things for Kasban to write about in a matter of minutes but he did! As the actors sat with us in the audience – truly breaking the Fourth Wall – they commented on the bare, empty stage, pretending to wait for the show to start. Putra said he wished this show had more sex and politics, Mok said the poles are shaking, then shouted “they are dancing”, while all the actors – and the audience – laughed out loud. Tan even showed the person beside me Irfan’s script, as he had written in it, “Laugh exaggeratedly”.

Amidst the open nature of its vignettes, most of the segments in The Perfection of Ten were shrouded in comedy that was both witty and funny, and although quite experimental in nature, The Perfection of Ten lacked the sombre, depressive, and existential mood most experimental shows are known for. Therein lay the fun and excitement of being privy to this performance.

However, although this play raised a lot of questions and that is indeed the outcome of watching something non-narrative, I wish The Perfection of Ten had had perhaps some of the playwrights’ own thoughts in the pieces. As it stood, while the audience had enough fodder to think about –  as Mok intended – the plays were missing the voice of their scribes. Hence in the end the space created in the performance was one that the audience was made to fill according to their own inclinations. Was this “imperfection” by design? Or a hint of the lack of “perfection” in the writers?

At one point, Tobin threw tomatoes at Mok. Was this him doing what countless of audiences wish they could do during such experimental shows? Did the audience want to throw tomatoes at Tobin and the cast of this show? Don’t worry, The Perfection of Ten only gets praises; no throwing tomatoes from me at all. 

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.