Pas de Deux For Lonely Singles
Richard Lord goes dancing
By Richard Lord
If some of the more ballyhooed local productions of the last few months can be taken as a guide, it is getting pretty ugly out there for women trying to find a good man. And we are not talking here only about the physiognomy of the available males.
Two shows - engaging in very different ways - testify to this crisis. One of these was a British import by a fledgling Singaporean company whose mission statement is to bring in fresh British theatrical imports, while the second happened to be a home-grown piece by one of the Lion City’s long-established troupes.
The British import was Modern Dance for Beginners, put up as a maiden effort by Escape Productions. This play, by Sara Phelps, spins out various permutations on the eternal tragicomedy of heterosexual encounters. The tragic element in this tragicomedy flows from the fact that while we are highly sexual beings (by far, the most sexual of all primates), we also indulge in thinking and feeling and frequently insist on more emotional rewards than sex alone can ever deliver.
Phelps understands this well, which is why her Modern Dance is an engaging, if limited, work. Her dramatic strategy for addressing this issue is a somewhat musty one, going all the way back (over 100 years), to Arthur Schnitzler’s Der Reigen, whose characters and themes David Hare updated for his highly acclaimed and controversial The Blue Room.
Schnitzler, a good friend of Freud’s and himself a successful Viennese physician in his day-job wrapping, saw that in the human being, nature’s procreative urges often turn into destructive forces. On this point, Phelps would evidently agree strongly with her Austrian predecessor. Like Reigen (which means ‘merry-go-round’ in German), Modern Dance for Beginners assembles a squad of sexual players getting together for sessions of sexual congress in a kind of coital relay race, one half of each duo turning up with another partner in another scene - passing along the pleasure baton, as it were.
The main focus of the play rests on Frances and Owen, two Londoners who have apparently been locked in a tortuous long-term affair. The play both opens and closes on Owen’s wedding night, as the former lovers have slipped upstairs to a hotel room in order to enjoy one more round of illicit sexual ecstasy.
The other players in Modern Dance include Owen’s unfortunate wife Julia, seen only when she has slipped into the role of bored, frustrated (albeit pampered) housewife; a handyman whose full range of skills Julia would like to sample; a hyper-sexual male media exec; a sensual woman who runs a sporting goods shop; a ‘corporate reptile’ (Phelp’s phrase) by day who morphs into lounge lizard by night; and a female oncologist who draws horny barflies by reading books in pubs, feigning inapproachability.
This ill-starred octet stumbles through a maze of six scenes which, almost without exception, chronicle the joylessness of sex. Each pairing here is a bad fit emotionally, it seems. Phelps’ message seems to be that in contemporary British society, sex is much easier than ever, while love or emotional fulfillment is much harder. This, of course, is hardly the most original of messages, but Phelps delivers it with a good measure of wit and panache. Her dialogue is by turns taut, biting, chilling and quite funny. Indeed, the humour is at its best when it’s most catty, claws drawn and poised to strike. For instance, Frances observes that in her preposterous wedding hat, Owens new mother-in-law looks like “Roy Orbison in drag”. A scene later, the handyman spurns Julia’s offer of quick sex by tartly explaining that he’s only just finished his breakfast. And when the media exec, in describing their intimacy, tries to wax poetic in terms of exploring different parts of Frances’ body, she replies “Russell, this isn’t intimacy, it’s forensic science.”
We have already noted that Phelps borrowed the play’s overall structure from Schnitzler; she also unapologetically lifted the idea for the funniest scene from Harold Pinter’s brilliant one-act The Lover. (This is when we discover that the crass lounge lizard and the oncologist he’s hitting on are actually not strangers, but a long-established couple.)
Although Phelps does borrow liberally, the play itself does not come off as being derivative. The reason is that Phelps kneads her borrowings into fresh material for her own creative agenda. A more significant weakness is the fact that three of the four men is this ménage veer close to cliché. At least half the vignettes are slightly marred by the fact that the males therein seem drawn in overly broad strokes, the better to bring out the frustrations of their female partners in these scenes.
But this imbalance does not significantly hurt either the individual bits or the play itself, which is a fine effort for a young playwright. Phelps does go for easy truths, and she cheats a little to package them, but she writes well and creates characters who, with all their flaws, keep us involved over the course of a long one-act.
Escape Productions served up a good rendition of this work, pulling at the right cords. Director Samantha Scott-Blackhall presents the six vignettes in a clean, efficient manner, keeping the mise-en-scene to a minimum while drawing out all the emotional impact of the scenes. She was, to be sure, ably assisted in the latter project by the performances of Debra Teng and Mark Waite.
(One directorial misstep: Frances is afraid that if she takes her shoes off, she will not be able to get them back on. But Teng is wearing open shoes with straps, which would present no such problem.)
Not that the actors were uniformly strong throughout the evening. Both started out a little cautious in the opening wedding night scene, where they relied a bit too much on standard acting tricks to get their characters established.
As noted by several local critics, Teng sounded distinctly non-British in the first scene. But that trait, combined with Teng’s Asian appearance, actually added a certain salutary texture to the situation. Maybe part of Frances’ problem is that she is an outsider, trying hard to fit in but not being accorded full admittance to the society. The bitterness that fills her in all three appearances thus becomes more understandable, and her character more sympathetic. (Admittedly, Teng’s accent grew more British as the evening proceeded moved on.)
On the other hand, Mark Waite was a bit weak in the second scene (the D.H. Lawrence borrowing: bored, well-heeled housewife seeks comfort with handily available handyman) because neither his accent nor his demenour credibly capture the contemporary working-class hero.
However, the acting got better for both as the evening moved on. Teng proved best at the most demanding of emotional moments. Included here would be the concluding scene where her Frances reaches more deeply into her parched emotions that she had in her previous two scenes. Teng shows hurt well, and moves convincingly through vulnerability. This latter was seen especially when she played the sporting goods lady.
Waite faced a greater challenge in bringing his characters to life in that three-quarters of them were weakly drawn in the text. However, with the exception of that handyman, he pulled it off quite nicely indeed.
He deserves a special nod of appreciation for his handling of the lounge lizard Skinner. Skinner’s long, overdrawn poetic comparison of the woman to a lake is potentially very funny, and Waite milked it for all it was worth. Also delicious was the way his pretentious lout pronounced estrogen- “ees-trogen” .
Also in this club scene, as the secret about the couple’s little secret finally spills out, Teng and Waite exchanged a look that no text could ever render into words, a momentary spark of triumphant acting that actors and directors often dream of achieving.
But Teng and Waite, who are the co-founders of Escape Productions, are also to be applauded for their determination to bring strong new plays such as Modern Dance for Beginners to Singapore so quickly. (In this case, the Phelps’ piece only had its London premiere in September 2002, a few months before it came to us.)
Confessions of Three Unmarried Women must hold a high nostalgic value for Action Theatre, seeing as how the company started its existence with this work. That was way back in the last century (1987 to be exact), and the first session of Confessions was far different from what we encounter here. In fact, the ur-Confessions was a one-act play, a devised work put together fashioned in a collaboration between directors and actors.
The role of Kelly, the successful businesswoman, in that first Confessions was played by Eng Wee Ling, lawyer and part-time actress. Eng also participated in devising that original piece and now Eng, who subsequently developed her skills as a playwright over a skein of projects, has radically “revised, revamped and revitalized” that material to produce the current edition of Confessions.
The four young women who form the core of both versions (one gives up her unmarried status at the play’s conclusion) are supposedly successful contemporary Singaporeans who still find something missing in their lives. Though they are loathe (in varying degrees of loatheness) to admit it, that missing piece in their lives is a solid relationship with a man.
Successful accountant Audrey finally admits it, however, and decides to marry Robert. (Even though the few accounts we get of Robert suggest that he’s something of an asshole.)
Audrey’s decision to break the bonds of female bachelorhood unleashes a round of alarms amongst her three friends from school days. They all duly express their support with a spate of reasons why they would never make a similar decision. Successful marketing exec Kelly is content with a changing round of sexual partners, free of the unpleasant encumbrances of commitment; successful doctor Sheila is content with her thriving practice and the good she performs there; while successful teacher and school administrator Patricia is content with the responsibilities of her job, the respect of her colleagues and the faith-based sexual repression she wears as a badge of honour.
They all develop to varying degrees as the play goes on, and Audrey gets married with the three friends in the wedding part, and they all come to appreciate what they’ve been trying to deny.
Was this revamped Confessions entertaining? Yes, for the most part. Of more artistic merit than a typical Singaporean sitcom (with which some local pundits have equated it)? Clearly so. I did laugh quite a few times - though not nearly as often as many in the huge audience with me - and never asked myself why I didn’t just leave. Was it a very good, or even just a plain-vanilla good comedy? I’m afraid here I have to say no, not quite.
It also has to be said that this Confessions is a vast improvement over the original. For instance, the monologues in that original sounded like set speeches, rough audition pieces or character-building exercises during the early stages of rehearsal. The four women, too, were more like types delineating some aspect of Singaporean womanhood, vintage 1987, than full-blooded individuals.
The 2003 Confessions has much stronger individual speeches (Sheila’s monologue about a female relative’s suicide was, indeed, quite effective, especially as delivered by Suzan Karim.) More importantly, we now have four characters that the audience can hook into and feel they have met something beyond mere mouthpieces drawing us along in this story. Unfortunately, the four ladies are still not fully credible, and their stories still seem to have “standard issue” stamped on key parts. All this becomes most clear in the last scene, which presented a rather unconvincing, much too easy happy ending which came off as saccharine in every sense - especially the fact that saccharine is a kind of artificial sweetener.
Director Selena Tan opened the evening with a piquant stand-up comedy routine that quickly and charmingly won the audience over. The good will won by Tan extended into the play’s early going, even as some of the play’s weaknesses, unevenness started to reveal itself.
In addition to those I have noted above, I would have to add that a lot of the jokes were just too easy, too throwaway. If you can imagine that one of the better bits was this: “She loves oral sex - she all words and no action!”, you can understand why this show was not a showcase of brilliant wit.
I won’t go too far with this, but let us consider a few. On hearing about a truncated dinner with Audrey, Robert and Audrey’s future mother-in-law, Kelly empathises: “That’s so sad. (well-timed pause) All those prawns left untouched.”
Some jokes were just plain weak, certified clichés such as “A psychologist who can solve every problem but her own.” or “Love is like an onion: You peel it layer but layer and at times you cry.”
Not that the cast didn’t do their best to make the whole thing work, in its own broad terms. Deborah Teng (see above) again turned in a commendable performance, and Suzan Karin was strong at many points, not just in the deft way she slowly, skillfully let the bitter tale of suicide flow out in her monologue. Amy Cheng seemed unsure at points, but brought in needed levels of strength at key points in the show.
Interestingly, the most winning performance among the central quartet may have belonged to the youngest and least well known actress, Melissa Wansin Wong. Her Audrey was fittingly pert and delivered with a natural charm that made the character appealing rather than cloyingly saccharine, which it could most easily have been.
Kudos also must go to Loke Loo Pin in the rather extraneous role of Audrey’s aunt. This aunt is more or less reeled in form nowhere to deliver some gems of timeless wisdom from an older generation. The effect would probably have been a matter of “Huh?” if Loke had not been so strong. Her timing was pin-point, and she delivered a number of lines so beautifully, with such flawless timing, that they worked and got laughs even when they didn’t really deserve to.
While the set (designed by Thoranisorn Pitkul) was clean and efficient rather than impressive, the good lighting effects (courtesy of designer Thio Lay Hoon and her tech team) added significantly to the production’s appeal.
Music was also used effectively here. For instance, the inevitable Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” was first played out in threatening tones, then delivered in the traditional upbeat manner at play’s end.
Also, towards the end of the play, Amy Cheng delivered a lovely rendition of “Eternal Flame”, which is the first I have heard since the Bangles’ original that didn’t sound like a self-parody. (And come to think of it, the Bangles’ version itself flirts with self-parody.)
Perhaps the fairest verdict on this play, indeed this show, is that it is not like a typical Singaporean sitcom, but it is what Singaporean sitcoms would be if they were worth watching. Which is probably more than we can ever hope for. And that is why we have theatrical productions like Confessions of Three Unmarried Women.
QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003