Junk food diet produces entertainment rather than food poisoning
By Richard Lord
If music be the food of love, what are the dangers of getting ptomaine poisoning from the stuff? More importantly, what are the signs of such poisoning and how do you treat the ailment once you get it? Also of major significance: was it the music or the love that delivered the toxin?
These are just a few of the questions taken up by two local productions in the last quarter. The first of these productions was a decent rendering of a brilliant classic while the other was a sparkling presentation of a run-of-the-mill contemporary piece. In a display of how form can sometimes overtake content in theatre, the latter show was the more enjoyable though perhaps less fulfilling of the two.
The first play was the classic love tale Twelfth Night by the greatest playwright who has ever walked the earth, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, (a.k.a. William Shakespeare, Gentleman). (Just half-kidding about the authorship there.)
Twelfth Night could be deemed Stage Club’s favourite challenge, as the company has performed it four times in its 50-year history, more than any other work. This particular Stage Club edition was directed by Daniel Toyne, who also directed 2003’s The Rivals, wherein he transplanted the Sheridan play into a contemporary Club Med-style setting. Here Toyne shifted the Illyrian idylls to what seemed to be some generic British colony in the 1940’s, though except for costumes and music (especially the latter,) it did not really have much of a Forties feel about it.
If they were really committed to this Forties premise, Toyne and the company could have done much more to infuse the show with a ‘last-days-of-the-Empire’ air. This might have worked quite credibly with the text. Instead, the Forties served mainly as a backdrop to the action, which remains timeless - and here, sort of placeless as well. (The setting was nebulous, as there was nothing Mediterranean about this Illyria.)
Twelfth Night is usually classified as one of the Bard’s non-problem comedies. This overlooks the fact that available evidence suggests it was written right after Hamlet. Sure, this play blithely uses the same themes of mistaken identity of twins and women dressed up as men serving as advisors to men on how to handle women that sparked earlier, lighter comedies. But whatever demons gripped Shakespeare as he wrote Hamlet were still within him when he wrote Twelfth Night, and the darker tones of this play are unmistakeable. It would have been quite interesting for Toyne and his cast to have explored some of these darker aspects in the light of its 1940’s setting. Unfortunately, these aspects received something more like lingering glances than a firm exploration.
For all that, this was a rather admirable production: intelligent, nicely paced and balanced somewhere between a healthy respect for the depth of the text and the need to entertain broadly. (The original productions by Shakespeare’s companies apparently sought that same balance, playing to both the groundlings and the educated nobility.)
The acting, however, was mixed - in terms of both quality and styles - which is why I cannot give this production an unqualified thumbs-up. For instance, this Orsino (played by Musa Fazal) intoned the famous opening “If music be the food of love” line almost with resignation. An interesting start there, but the actor did not build sufficiently on it. His Orsino was credible, but safe and standard. Nothing terribly wrong with that, however, considering many of the alternatives.
Fazal certainly looked dashing in the role of the Duke and was good throughout at using his eyes and face, but not so good at using his body. At times, he seemed to be more comfortable in his uniform than in his own skin. More, his reading of the lines was at times engaging but at other times hesitant, flaccid even.
As the source of Orsino’s love-melancholy, Kim Maxwell’s Olivia was solid and shaky in turns. Maxwell used her face extremely well throughout, and this creation was clearly an Olivia with a strongly defined personality, one who would be a challenge to any man, let alone a conflicted aristocrat like the Duke. Still, at times she seemed to be playing the part by the numbers, not fully infused into the role with all its shifting moods.
But the main problem, at the very centre of this production, was Elena Scherer’s inappropriately low-key performance as Viola. Viola, of course, is the very clever lady who, when conveniently shipwrecked on the Illyrian coast, seeks to ingratiate herself with the local court by dressing up as a man and serving as advisor to the Count. Orsino quickly accepts her/him as counsellor, then assigns her/him to help him woo his beloved Olivia.
Olivia, predictably, falls in love with the cross-dressing intermediary while that intermediary is busy falling in love with her boss. Meanwhile, Orsino is himself progressively drawn to his advisor, but cannot allow himself to succumb to what he thinks are homosexual yearnings. (And you thought Jerry Springer’s producers had invented all this stuff.)
But let us swing back to Elena Scherer’s limitations. As Viola is the one who essentially propels the main plot, a low-key Viola just will not do the job. Beyond that, Scherer did not seem to have a full grasp of the character’s development, evidenced when, while in the guise of Cesario, she rushed the realisation that Countess Olivia had fallen in love with her. Most importantly, there was little chemistry between our Olivia and Viola/Cesario. Come to that, there was insufficient chemistry between Viola and Orsino.
One should not put all the blame for this deficit on Scherer, as human chemistry is usually a matter of mutual reactions between people. However, as this Viola/Cesario was rather inert emotionally, it would have taken quite an achievement for either Fazal or Maxwell to have struck the necessary sparks from their side. (And there were some good moments between these pairs, as when the homophobic element was subtly but tellingly suggested in the first scene between Orsino and Cesario/Viola, reflected later in Viola’ s fluster at having drawn Olivia’s affections.)
Many a Twelfth Night suffers from weakness right there in the central triangle, and when that happens, the production becomes even more dependent on a strong team in the broadly comic sub-plot. Fortunately, this is precisely where the Stage Club’s version came out strongest. The two best performances in this show belonged to Phil McConnell as Malvolio and Paul Hannon as Feste. McConnell’s Malvolio was a loyal servant who suddenly sees his chance to leapfrog into a master’s role and takes it as clumsily as he can.
McConnell furnished his Malvolio with a buffed Lancashire accent and a pole-up-the-ass posture; the juxtaposition of the two worked beautifully. This Malvolio was not the pompous, affected fool he often is. The McConnell version was respectable at points, even a bit sympathetic as he tried to bring some order into his mistress’ household.
One of the strongest forces disrupting that order was Paul Hannon’s Feste. When we first encountered this Feste, he was a priapic character, ready to shag anything that he could get near enough to. But within a short time, Feste revealed himself as preternaturally clever and adroit, using his wit as a weapon. Hannon’s cunning creation pointed out a clear line between Feste and Lear’s Fool.
But Hannon’s performance also let us clearly see what impels this Feste: pained resentment. Orsino’s Illyria is anything but a meritocracy, and Feste must always remain merely a court clown despite all his intelligence and talents. (Which in this production included a splendid singing voice with which Hannon regaled us.) He rankles over this injustice. Thus his jokes are tipped with acid, and Hannon rarely pulls off some stunt without flashing a sneer of appreciation at its outcome.
But sometimes, it got overdone: for instance, would Feste have dared give Orsino a hard, rather aggressive slap on the back, as he does here towards the end? I doubt it. Still, when this Feste sang a sour, Forties rendition of the “Rain it raineth every day” ditty, it was a perfect wrap to the class-tainted drama we had just witnessed.
The others in the comic crew were also commendable and served this production well. Angela Barolsky as Sir Andrew Aguecheek used her face well, though she had a tendency to rush her lines, especially in the early going where Aguecheek’s role and intentions are laid out. But she ultimately delivered a tasty version of this socially clumsy fop. And director Toyne is to be admired for casting a woman as this knight who is always hopelessly behind the man he thinks he might be.
As Sir Toby Belch, Barry Woolhead was not at all bad, even if he was not all that convincing as a full-barrelled drunk. (His physical appearance, with the aid of make-up, made it look like he has had quite a bit of practice with that.) One of Woolhead’s shortcomings as Sir Toby deep in his cups was a tendency to slur his lines. This impediment denied Woolhead a full flowering of his character, who is often the star of the evening. Here, Sir Toby was just a pleasant adjunct to the comic troupe camped in Olivia’s manor.
Much better was Maureen McConnell as Maria, Olivia’s maidservant. McConnell brought energy, ebullience and a winning demeanour to this Maria, and added spark to almost every scene she stepped into.
In fact, perhaps the single most ebullient scene in this whole production came at the end of Act I (as Stage Club divided the play) with a conniving Feste singing along with the two drunk nobles, then pulling in Maria to join them at the end. This incident allowed for a good use of the show’s music and accompanied it with first-rate acting. It proved a splendid way of closing out the first part of the evening.
The second part of the evening was not as successful, mainly because the play required director and cast to pull all the plot strands together, and this brought the company’s weaknesses into sharper focus. Primary amongst the weak spots were the lacklustre performances of Patrick McConnell as Sebastian and Bruno Goh Luise as Antonio. In fact, the key scenes between Antonio and Sebastian were all functional here, nothing more. Curiously, there was no homoerotic element in their relationship, which would served this production well.
There was also no sense of station or sharing between them. Why, for instance, would Antonio stick his hand in his pocket as Sebastian tells his sad story, a strange gesture in this context? Actually, there was almost no element of the character’s interacting: it was just two actors reciting lines at each other.
Antonio’s acting was all one-track, while Patrick McConnell couldn’t handle his lines very well. (He was the one performer who seemed outdone by Shakespeare’s text.) This young McConnell seems to have some acting talent (it should be in his genes, considering the performance of his parents here), but this role is much too large for him yet. It is hard to shake the suspicion that the only reason he was even cast as Sebastian was that his youthfulness and slight figure made him visually believable as Viola’s twin brother.
There were some good moments in that second half of the evening , such as when Aguecheek came out for his duel with Cesario togged out in ridiculous fencing gear. This underscored how clueless this aristocrat is. Their ill-conceived duel was, fittingly enough, a comic highpoint of the second half.
On the other hand, the scene between Sir Topaz (Feste in disguise) and a captive Malvolio was a big disappointment, considering that the two main figures in this confrontation were the strongest performers in the production. For one thing, Feste effected no change of voice or accent as Topaz, even though the text clearly suggests such a change. More importantly, the darkness - which actually enhances the humour of the scene - was largely missing. Feste was seen as playing a schoolboy’s stunt rather than carrying out the act of sly cruelty this fake exorcism should be.
Finally, the switches at the end were brought off without the spark and enchantment they deserve. The union of Fazal’s Orsino and Scherer’s Viola was more like a meeting of friends, while Maxwell’s Olivia taking the arm of young Sebastian looked more like an affectionate aunt picking up a favourite nephew at the station. As husband and wife, Maxwell and McConnell were the worst matched couple since Samuel L. Jackson and Yoda as comrades-in-arms in Revenge of the Sith.
I was also somewhat disappointed by Malvolio’s final appearance. Released from his incarceration, he issued an acrid but perfunctory, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” before stomping off. I have long felt that this was line and this exit should be taken as Shakespeare’s portent of what lay ahead if the Puritans ever came to power in England. Such an astute student of human nature and man of the theatre must have been aware of the threat the Puritans posed to his world. (They saw the theatre as a staging ground for iniquity and false guidance.) The exit line should thus hold power, as this humiliated representative of the Puritans commits himself to revenge on an entire way of life. In this reading, it was more like petulance than threat.
But for all of its faults, this Twelfth Night was a lively, amiable production that sent the audience out of the theatre cheerful and well entertained. It also served up a lesson for all those Singapore theatre companies who say they will not attempt Shakespeare simply because they cannot find a cast large enough and talented enough to do the Bard. The Stage Club is to be strongly commended both for their moxie in taking on the Bard and for giving us an altogether respectable rendition of this not very easy play.
Music was perhaps even more important in another show on the themes of love and mistaken identities, Lovepuke. The pre-show was from Sting. At keenly interspersed moments, one of the ancillary characters moved to the keyboard and banged out a good old song. At the close, the cast sang the Elvis standard “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”, which then segued into Beethoven’s “Für Elise” over a wrap-up speech. This was then spun into the Supremes’ “Stop In The Name of Love”. The whole medley concluded with the obligatory “Love Is In the Air”, as bright-eyed and egregious as ever. In short, music was here something that love nibbled on whenever it got the munchies.
The play itself, by New Zealander Duncan Sarkies is pretty flimsy stuff packaged in a mildly clever way that makes it, truth be told, fairly entertaining. Of course, its short running time, just over an hour if properly paced, helps keep it largely entertaining for most of that time. Not too long after you realise this piece has run out of steam and ideas (though not in that order), it wraps up in a not unpleasant manner.
The play seems to have struck a chord in the local psyche as this is its second production in just over five years (double the usual number for a little-known play by a little known playwright). The first production, back in 1999, was turned out by the Toy Factory, with Jeffrey Tan directing. Tan is back at the helm of this edition, though this time, Sarkies piece is under the aegis of the venerable TheatreWorks.
A few local reviewers have actually praised this piece for its “insights”. Insights? Lovepuke? Are we talking about the same play? Alright, one could consider this show insightful when compared to, let’s say, the average episode of Joey or Friends. Make that comparison with a very good episode of Friends, and Lovepuke has a real run for its money. Set the bar at a really good episode of Ally McBeal or Sex and the City, and Lovepuke is not even in the insight league.
Sarkies’ characters all snugly border on stereotypes. (Except for one truly unique character whose constipation inspires her to poetry and acrobatic performance art. I don’t think any stereotypes could develop out of something that weird.) Moreover, the situations the characters encounter - men and women frequently want different things; love is harder to find and maintain than mere partnership; some people crave love in a relationship while their partner is quite content with unencumbered sex; and even sex can be disappointing, particularly if you do not have the right partner - have been looked at a thousand times before, usually much better than Sarkies does it here.
Nor is Lovepuke especially strong over on the wit side of the ledger. Oh sure, there is a steady stream of laughs running throughout the show, but these are usually easy laughs plucked from the lower boughs of wit. And then there are those poems about constipation and defecation which are irredeemably terrible: juvenile doggerel of the sort that delighted us when we were about nine or ten years old but was discarded when we hit puberty. I have no idea what Sarkies thought he was achieving with this crap. (Literally, and figuratively, in this case.)
What Sarkies does have going here is a slightly clever structure and a few stage gimmicks that he manages to work over nicely. This allows him to get the most mileage possible out of his quickly sketched characters and been-there-before scenarios. The three main couples (though ‘pairings’ might be a better term here) go through the various throes of lust and love (often just the latter) and confide their problems to us; then we see them in action.
The show is actually a series of flash skits knit together, though the skits are all related by the persistence of those established characters. These skits are divided into broadly thematic sections, often given titles projected on the back wall; titles such as “The Bit After The End” (which opens the show), “Obligatory Happy Ending”, Making The Move, “Sex No. 1”, “Fun And Games”.
This is done in ricochet manner, as the focus moves from one couple to the other, then to the next, then to... Ah, but Sarkies keeps us guessing where we’ll be heading next, which is what keeps his play lively and entertaining for most of its short duration.
One of the gimmicks that gets used to good advantage is having two halves of a relationship step downstage and run through a series of signboards with words delineating stages of that relationship, or a sexual episode, or a rough patch in their bonding exercises. These are often quite comically conceived. For instance, the accounts of sex are often a scorecard on the respective orgasms (or absence thereof), while another scene has one conniving character hold up a signboard that says “HANKY” while he recounts the story of his Granny’s death. (It would have been nice if his partner had held up a board with “PANKY” written on it, but she didn’t.)
Late in the going, there is a scene where the cast walks up into the side aisles to closely address the audience, but this quickly turns into a cacophonous chorus as they all start talking in ascending volumes. The cacophony, by the way, is absolutely called for by this point and tells us more about the couples than their individual tales ever could.
All this time, at the rear of the stage we find two other figures, one a confirmed cynic who serves as our occasional narrator or compass, while the other jumps on and around a toilet reciting that terrible poo-poo poetry for much of the play. Then, just when we think that these two are solitary figures turning in their own orbits, merely adding reflective breaks to the piece, they discover each other’s existence and become our fourth couple. (And as far as these Lovepuke couples go, one of the more successful.)
It is towards the end that Hermione, our performance poet, and Glen, the reformed cynic, get together, but it is a kinky meet-up: she wraps him in toilet tissue, and at the key moment of imminent ecstasy, goes and pukes. I guess this was Sarkies’ attempt to show us the significance of his otherwise rather puzzling title. I do not dare to wonder if this should be taken as a metaphor for love in general.
As you can imagine, the rhythm and energy of performance is an important aspect of Sarkies’ written work, and these are two things the TheatreWorks team masters in this production. Jeffrey Tan’s staging was thoroughly praiseworthy, inspired craftsmanship taking on an act of high-speed dramatic juggling and pulling it off with aplomb.
The set was composed of eight pink toilets (one more than in the earlier Toy Factory take, evidently) arranged in three groups of three, two and three. This sets up a fine visual symmetry against which the emotional chaos can safely transpire. To enhance the concept, the toilets were placed on platforms, which seem to perch on countless rolls of toilet paper. The toilets double as chairs, as storage areas for the signboards, as a radio (turned on and off via the flush button) and, in two shrewd uses, even as toilets. The lighting and light side were both strong, following the rapid switches within the action with precision. (One gaffe on the technical side: the voiceovers of the radio caller were difficult to understand, particularly the first one.)
But credit for the success of this Lovepuke cannot go solely to Tan and his design team. The cast earned kudos all around for their energy and pinpoint timing. Without that timing, this show would certainly suffer, could even become insufferable. With this group, it became quite enjoyable.
The delivery of lines was often beautifully deadpan and spot-on. For instance, at one point, Ivan (Brendan Fernandez) is describing the plus-points of his new girlfriend, and allows as to how she is good at blowjobs. He then adds, “I like a blowjob” in the same tone an amateur wine connoisseur might concede the underrated charms of a New Zealand Merlot. Even the old gag about calling someone a taxi worked because the character who tried it was drunk at that moment and entirely capable of spewing out such stupid jokes.
In such a strong ensemble, it might seem hard to single out one or two for special praise, but it was clear the standouts in this cast were Janice Koh as Louise and Chua Enlai as Kevin, a star-crossed couple who meet at a singles bar and then go through a short but eventful roller-coaster relationship. Louise is a sexual predator, interested mainly in great sex with as few strings attached as possible. Kevin is a successful exec who feels that sexual conquests are as important and deserved accessories to his financial status as are designer clothing and expensive, showy watches.
Koh and Chua both played in the earlier, Toy Factory version, though there Koh played the naïve Marissa, while Chua Enlai took on the relatively traditional Nathan. Koh’s petite appearance more readily suggests a Marissa, but the casting decision here was accurate: it is not often the case that those who look innocent are amongst the most jaded?
Koh brings a cool, knowing cynicism to the role: this Louse never once wavered in her commitment to quick sexual gratification and her abilities to get it. This lady does everything with a confidence shorn of commitments or regrets.
Chua had one foot up on a standout performance as his character is arguably the most interesting in the whole quirky octet. Kevin may seem to be a cookie-cutter yuppie who trawls the singles bars and similar grounds for quick and easy shags. As it turns out, Kev is also sexually drawn to his own sex, though he struggles mightily and comically to deny it, caught with one leg in, one leg out of his own well-upholstered closet.
Chua played the role with splendid adroitness. He was even able to play a drunk convincingly, something so few actors here are. (See right above and the other Extra Media critique in this issue).
Chermaine Ang and Ravi Raaj Marimootoo played the couple living in a dream of perfect love and marriage and they were both quite winning in these parts. The couple’s occasional incompatibilities only underscored how well suited they are to each other, and the two performances captured this well.
Brendan Fernandez also delivered a winning characterisation with his Ivan. Ivan is both reflective and strikingly shallow: a difficult combination to render, but Fernandez caught it correctly at every step.
Interestingly, the two most shallow figures, Louise and Ivan, eventually get together after they dumped their first partners. This seems a perfect match: both know what they want (great sex) and what they are not interested in (sticky commitments). However, once they do get together (literally), the two are wildly out of rhythm as he doggie-humps her. I am not sure whether this was an intentional commentary on such a pairing or just a lack of coordination between the two actors.
Annie Lee, who played Janice, has the shortest acting résumé of the six main characters and it showed at times; her performance was the least assured of the six central figures. Lee clung closer to the surface of her character, tapping on the obvious aspects of an irrepressibly naïve romantic. Still, she nicely depicted a sweet innocent doomed to get hurt amongst the more rapacious beasts of the sexual jungle.
Our Hermione, Denise Tan, has a good singing voice, though she only got to display it once here. But when she did, she pumped it for all it was worth - and it has got real worth. Her acting was not quite as impressive, but she made Hermione believable and endearing - no easy task, that.
The other guide through the relationship jungle is the supposedly confirmed single Glen, played by Rajesh Krishnamurti. He, too, gave a believable performance, though he was even better providing solid musical accompaniment on the keyboard.
This TheatreWorks package was a fine example of form trumping content: a solid production which enriched a weak script to end up with a winning show. Sarkies is a long way off from Shakespeare, but this Lovepuke was even more fun than the Stage Club’s Twelfth Night. Which just goes to show that even a junk food diet can produce an entertaining look at love, sex and the many permutations thereof.