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Theatre Review (Singapore): Three Plays by Alfian Sa’at

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Wild Rice’s In the Spotlight this year centres on the works of popular playwright Alfian Sa’at, and three of his plays – Cook a Pot of Curry, Dreamplay: Asian Boys Volume 1 and The Optic Trilogy – will be playing at various venues at the LaSalle College of the Arts till the 20th of July 2013.

COOK A POT OF CURRY

COOK A POT OF CURRY

Cook a Pot of Curry, which runs from July 3-20, focuses on the onslaught of foreigners into the country. This is examined via interviews which are re-enacted by the actors on stage incorporating the various accents and mannerisms of the real-life interview subjects. And here is where the production gets its humourous slant. From Neo Swee Lin’s Indian-accented portrayal of well-known personality Daisy Irani, to Rishi Budhrani’s Hindi-speaking migrant, to Nelson Chia’s PRC-accented Chinese student, the pertinent issues of Singapore’s growing number of foreigners impacting on local citizens’ comfort and needs are played out in perfect accent, pitch and tone.

Touching on sensitive issues, political issues, personal issues, racial issues and most importantly Singaporean issues, each of the vignettes in a way provides an outlet for Singaporeans in the audience who can’t voice their opinions about the influx of foreigners to the necessary authorities. Just as the girl sitting in my row kept mumbling “mmm yes” to every sentence uttered by the actors, I found myself nodding a few times as well. Sa’at certainly has his ear to the ground and presents our fears and worries in an accessible package here, by way of the perfomers’ monologues and dialogues.

Curry 4

Despite Cook a Pot of Curry lacking a whole “pot” of humour and being more serious than expected, it’s evident that Sa’at isn’t afraid of exposing the inner thoughts and feelings of the people he’s interviewed for this piece – even if some things are difficult to hear, and even more difficult to swallow. Being politically correct or having a filter is thankfully not something Sa’at seems to grapple with, and that’s a good thing because sometimes we need to hear the truth, in its purest form. Case in point: Two Malay characters discuss how Singapore was a Malay village once upon a time, and how the Chinese migrants then came and took over the country. So isn’t it really history repeating itself now with the PRC migrants coming into Singapore too? Should we accept that a country’s balance will and should change over time?

Another case in point: A character ponders whether the government is in fact open to PRCs coming into Singapore more so than Indonesian or Malaysian Chinese because the latter are able to speak Malay and connect with the local Malays, and the government would rather have pure Chinese migrants instead. And is this also a way to ensure the ruling party, PAP, continues getting votes from new migrants as locals become wary of the government? You would never hear such opinions being voiced freely in the public sphere (even if they circulate anonymously in cyberspace), but here under the creative and open umbrella of the Arts, you hear this loud and clear, even as some people shift uncomfortably in their seats. Therein lies the attraction of this production: It speaks for you what you can’t say in public. And for those two hours, as fleeting as they are, you feel understood.

In addition, Sa’at presents us with a variety of views. It isn’t just foreigner-bashing here, as we also gain insight into migrants who love Singapore just as much as a local does, albeit for different reasons. There isn’t much force-feeding here either, and Sa’at pretty much lets the audience form their own opinions on the foreigner-influx situation.

Well, until the last act at least.

Despite Sa’at trying to be fair, I imagine the last act, which is divided into two parts, was inserted as a cheeky nod to what most Singaporeans would be feeling ultimately. And what a rip-roaring two-part act the ending is. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s Sa’at’s wild imagining of what would happen if PRCs take over the island.

Under Glen Goei’s direction, the cast, which aside from Neo, Budhrani and Chia also includes Noorlinah Mohamed, Najib Soiman and Judee Tan, entice the audience, all effectively displaying their skill at portraying different ethnicities and various accents in a multitude of situations.

If theatre, film and television are reflections of the times, Cook a Pot of Curry certainly has proven so, and if you’re a Singapore citizen frustrated with the fact that nobody in government cares about your gripes, then watch this play, because that’s the beauty of the Arts – they can speak for you, even when you are silenced.

DREAMPLAY: ASIAN BOYS, VOLUME 1

DREAMPLAY: ASIAN BOYS, VOL 1

DREAMPLAY: ASIAN BOYS, VOL 1

Sa’at’s second play, Dreamplay: Asian Boys Volume 1, which is running from July 3-20, touches on a Goddess called Agnes (Jo Kukathas) coming to earth in an effort to learn about and possibly eradicate gay lifestyles, which she thinks are the reason people on earth are unhappy. With the help of Boy (Tan Shou Chen), Agnes appears as different people in various scenarios trying to get the gay men to change their sexuality.

Agnes travels from pre-independent Singapore where a couple of coolies find themselves attracted to each other, to the Japanese Occupation where two male lovers hide from the enemy, to the early days of Singapore’s independence where gay men meet at clubs, to 1987 where members of the theatre are accused of spreading a gay agenda, and finally to the present world where people go online to find love.

This play is campy and physically comedic, and has enough laughs and fun for all. Written over 10 years ago, it has shaken off some of the controversy – and thus maybe a bit of relevancy too – as Singaporeans have become more accepting of homosexuality and less shocked by it. However, the actors are able to capture the slapstick moments nicely and this was what brought a lot of laughter from the house.

ABV 4

Sa’at’s writing is a potpourri of popular culture references, fantastical elements, historical points, a surreal plot and even slo-mo reverse-action sequences. But it wouldn’t be a Sa’at play without the darker and more insightful points, which include a scene about a boy who plays voyeur in a bathroom cubicle, and the way some Chinese gay men dislike Malays. In the most honest moment I’ve ever encountered in theatre, Jo Kukathas as Goddess Agnes wonders why one of the characters yearns for a Chinese partner. She then paces around the stage declaring that Chinese “never wash their backsides and have small cocks”!

ABV 3

The play also has its sweet moments, as seen in the men – whether it be in the colonial days or during the throes of war – coming to terms with their homosexuality and embracing it – and each other.

Dreamplay: Asian Boys, Vol. 1 is a magical mess, and genre-bending, and of course as the title suggests, dreamlike. Above all, it’s also funny and frank.

THE OPTIC TRILOGY

The Optical Trilogy

The Optic Trilogy

Sa’at’s final play for The Spotlight is The Optic Trilogy which runs from the July 10-20. This two-person play is performed by Brendon Fernandez and Janice Koh. In three different stories, three different couples explore love, sex and relationships.

In the first story, a woman orders herself a gigolo but is unsure if she wants to proceed. In the second story, a blind woman comes to model for a photographer only to discover they two may need each other emotionally. And in the third story, a man answers an advert by a woman seeking a husband, only to discover they shared the same lover in the past.

Optic 3

Despite the chance encounters in the last two stories being too coincidental and hence a little unconvincing, the rest of the plots and themes are delved into well. Sa’at manages to explore different facets of love, sex and relationships, from loneliness to fated love to online romantic ventures, and from the need for physical intimacy to the yearning for emotional connectivity to losing love – sometimes forever.

If you’re a romantic or even a realist, you’ll enjoy these snippets of sex and romance, and remember that in the end, we really don’t have any control over this thing called “love”.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

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