Squeeze and Please
Entertaining in tight situations
By Richard Lord
Even old Bertolt Brecht, the received voice of authority for committed political theatre throughout much of the last century, knew that theatre was not meant for preaching or screeching. In an essay written towards the end of his life, Brecht reminded his disciples and devotees that “the primary duty of theatre is to entertain”.
It’s good to remind us of this truth every so often. We should never leap to the assumption that theatre, which mainly works to entertain, has sold out, or that a play, which merely entertains, is somehow ipso facto a reprehensible work. Theatre can and should do a great many things, and those products, which warm an audience’s heart or make people truly laugh are to be applauded in their own right.
Two recent programs here in the Lion City pointed up the importance of sheer entertainment, though the Action Theatre’s latest “Squeeze” collection also had a fair amount of message squeezed/packed into its laugh package.
Squeeze and Squeezability is the group title given to Action Theatre’s selection of very short plays that closed out the third quarter of 2002. The program was by turns amusing, thought provoking, and moving. With one exception, the six plays collected here demonstrated the rich potential of the form for plays under-15 minutes in length. All were directed by Malaysia’s renowned Krishin Jit, who brought a wide-ranging sensibility and inventive stage intelligence to each piece.
The evening kicked off rather nicely with Huzir Sulaiman’s 'Whatever That Is', a tasty titbit that throws a soft if not always kind light on a marriage now amiably chugging along into its survivor stage. A playlet with no action beyond the skillfully poised exchange of dialogue between husband and wife, Whatever That Is charts the disillusionments and mood dips that fill the lives of ostensibly successful late middle-aged people.
Sulaiman’s text shows the indelible influences of early Harold Pinter and Edward Albee - i.e., when these two playwrights were fresh, bold and expressive. Sulaiman’s text is clever and insightful, though neither clever nor insightful enough to earn this piece the accolade of “a tiny gem”. But along its well-trimmed path, it plants enough truths about the small failures and triumphs of human relationships to make it a piece well worth seeing and reading. And more than once, I‘d say.
The next playlet up, by Sulaiman’s Malaysian compatriot Leow Puay Tin, also looked at a marriage in its autumnal period, but to a much lesser effect. In fact, this piece, 'Dinner For Two', turned out to be the speed bump of the evening. Sadly, Leow never gives us much to grab onto in these characters, electing instead to crudely stitch together dialogue going nowhere, clichés about failed relationships, and fillips of lame Absurdism. This was the one Squeeze and Squeezability piece in which even Krishin Jit’s fertile directorial imagination along with the frantic energy of his two energised performers (Loong Seng Oon and Jean Ng), failed to save the piece.
Quite the opposite occurred with Kate Huffower’s 'The Office', where Jit and this triad of three talented actresses (Jean Ng, Amber Simon and Claire Wong) transform a rather ordinary script bereft of any new insights into office existence into a splendid close to the evening through wonderfully inventive, maniacally animated staging.
Strong staging also added intriguing texture to 'Old Man & The Seed', a sometimes moving theatrical tone poem by Mary Steelsmith. Transplanted from the original amber fields of the America Northwest to a quasi-Asian landscape, this version showed the universality of Steelsmith’s vignette, which finally captures the core of the daily miraculous the two characters pursue. The nicely balanced performances turned in by Loong Seng Oon and Jean Ng also contributed richly to this achievement, even if neither proved very believable as an old person.
Rather more credible as an old woman was Claire Wong in Desmond Sim’s 'MRT', a slit of light onto the lives of two Singaporeans drawn together by different losses dealt out by the different worlds they inhabit on this tiny island. Chua Enlai likewise turns in a convincing performance as the young man who serves as the converse weight on the fulcrum/scales of this balanced script.
Chua Enlai was, in fact, the best male performer of the evening, just as his MRT fellow-traveller Wong proved best female. Chua clinched this title on the strength of his work in 'Trying to Find Chinatown', clearly the best written script in the show. David Henry Hwang’s piece, also possibly the longest of the evening, delivered humour, vibrancy and touching emotion. Exploring the themes of ethnic identity and what really makes us what we are, Hwang’s piece takes an unlikely encounter between a Chinese-American jazz violinist and a textbook WASP from the American heartland and turns out a theatrical koan on those themes. 'Trying to Find Chinatown' is quite simply a gem of a playlet which demonstrates the breadth and depth this form can achieve as the two characters dig into the questions of who we are and how we come to discover ourselves. Further kudos to actor Mark Waite as Chua’s white-bread interlocutor in giving this gem its final glitter.
Just around the time Squeeze and Squeezability was closing, the Wild Rice company opened its last production of the 2002 season, the vintage French farce Boeing Boeing by Marc Camoletti. This old workhorse, which opened in the early 60’s, set records for being the longest running comedy in Parisian theatre history (in an unbroken booking, that is; M. Moliere can make a claim to even longer runs), as well as in London’s West End.
I cannot begin to fathom why, however. Essentially a predictable sitcom episode extended to almost two hours, Boeing Boeing is a comedy that should have passed its shelf life decades ago. The fact that it somehow just keeps on running says something about the durability of hopelessly superficial farces. Or maybe it’s just that Boeing Boeing goes down so easily: you can enjoy this piece without thinking about it very much. Indeed, thinking about this play very much is a clear detriment to your enjoyment of the work.
Now, French farce is at least as formulaic as Greek tragedy ever was. All you need for textbook French farce is the near-occasion of sex, a number of doors, and a lot of traffic on stage. Camoletti gives us almost nothing more than this. Boeing Boeing works in six doors (though only five get used); both near-occasions of and post-mortems on sex; and a lot of Misses and near misses prancing around the libidos of two healthy, red-blooded bachelors.
These are the structural sinews of Camoletti’s work. What they hold together is not muscle, but clichés and stale jokes, many of which must have been woefully limp even when fresh. Moreover, in addition to being locked into the venerable traditions of Gallic farce, this piece is just as locked into the mindset of the 1960’s from which it sprang. What we have at the hub of Boeing Boeing are two clever guys forever about to get hoisted by their own petards (not to say peckers) and a trio of Sixties-issue ditsy broads.
The Wild Rice production does try to update the material somewhat, but this entails mainly the introduction of mobile phones or current fashions and catch-phrases. But that’s just cosmetic repair, and this piece desperately needs radical surgery, with a list of vital transplants. On the other hand, Wild Rice’s efforts to localise the script come off much better, and add much needed texture and appeal to the evening.
The calculating centre of all this farce is Bernard, a highly successful architect with the obligatory swinging bachelor’s pad. Bernard keeps his flat stocked with a ready supply of alcohol and lovely woman. In fact, he’s engaged to three of the latter, and each of them spends every spare moment with this entrenched trigamist. The way Bernard gets away with juggling three highly amorous fiancées is that they are all flight attendants with different airlines (in this localized edition it’s SIA, JAL, and Cathay Pacific) who never stop off in Singapore at the same time. To assure his no-pain philandering, Bernard keeps a log on their flight schedules that would do a chief scheduling officer proud. But then one fateful weekend, a pilot’s strike, a cancellation, and an incredibly early arrival combine to put Bernard’s juggling skills to the ultimate test. So, did anyone really doubt for one moment that such a confluence of the fates was about to occur?
It’s just this kind of near calamity that farces live on. Indeed, the Fates of farce work every bit as hard arranging its vectors as their dark sisters toil in destroying the heroes of Greek tragedy. However, in farce, the target of the Fates often escapes retribution for his or her hubris. In this case, Bernard is assisted in his deceptions and escapes by his old university buddy Robert, who has conveniently dropped in for the first time in four years. Robert is quickly enlisted in helping Bernard keep his juggling act aloft even when all three loves of his life congregate in the flat at the same time.
Some of the tactics used by the conniving duo include... Well, you can probably guess many of them yourself right there where you sit. And that’s precisely the main problem with this piece: Boeing Boeing’s farce isn’t even clever, just vigorous and well-winded. It moves from predicament to predicament and out again mainly via contrivance. The jokes are mostly chuckle chugs at their best, but more often, as already mentioned, lame or dated. (Would you believe jokes on sushi, with a couple of spins on raw fish and fishiness in general? Puh-lease.) Sexual and national stereotypes are plucked for laughs throughout. And true to the honor codes of dishonest farce, this one squeezes in the requisite bow to conventional morality at the very end. (Both bachelors finally realise that there’s only one woman for them and they respectively resolve to commit themselves to these two lucky ladies. Oh, don‘t worry: the odd one out also gets her dream man.)
While all the above indicates that this antiquated vehicle should have been grounded some time ago for advanced age and poor maintenance, it actually entertained surprisingly well in its Wild Rice rollout. The packed Jubilee Hall audience I was part of laughed appreciably at much of the action and all the trite humour. But I’m convinced that was largely due to the slick, polished production here rather than any intrinsic merits of the script.
Director Glen Gooi kept the pace frantic enough that we never got the chance to pause for a moment to see how lame the plot, how false the characterization was. Gooi and his strong cast infused their production with absolute precision and the clean staging this piece, like all farce, requires.
The performances also added a certain measure of needed humanity to this crew of caricatures, while never neglecting the conventions of farce. Lim Yu-Beng served up a winning Bernard, toning down the high-octane womaniser enough to give us something close to a recognisable character.
All three fiancées were commendable, with Emma Yong’s nicely limned Japanese lovely standing out. But Chermaine Ang’s bouncy turn as the Singapore Girl wanting nothing more than to be promoted to - what else - a complete Tai Tai was also fine, while Pamela Oei’s robust Cathay Pacific angel came off just right, from her rushed Hong Kong delivery to that persuasive jaw comically jutted in ire at Bernard’s machinations.
It’s hard to really go too much over the top in farce, but Mae Paner did occasionally test the limits in her role as Rosa, Bernard’s much overtasked maid. Still, the play just cannot work at all without a good Rosa to anchor it, and Paner was one reason why this version did work.
An even bigger reason was Sean Yeo as Robert. Bounding about on stage like a prime athlete who’s never sure what game he’s actually playing, Yeo used his rubbery face and agile physique to fine comic effect here. True, like Paner, Yeo did succumb to the temptation to mug even more than needed here, but overall his performance was quite admirable.
Still, I ask myself why the Wild Rice team would waste its time, energies and talent on clinkers like this one. Maybe to prove their abilities? To show that even when they take on inferior works such as Boeing Boeing, they are consummate theatrical artists. It would seem that no matter how weak the basic material, when Wild Rice aims to please, they know how to hit their target.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002