>landmarks: asian boys vol. 2 by w!ld rice
>reviewed by matthew lyon
6 feb 2004
>>>>>THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN
Back in the prelapsarian days of 2000, when gay plays were the exception rather than the rule, Alfian Sa'at bucked the trend and braved the censor by writing 'Asian Boys Vol. 1' and persuading the good folks at TNS to stage it. Popular though the play was, I was not impressed. In the review I wrote at the time (which you may revisit here) I accused 'Vol. 1' of falling between two audiences: of dressing up the smut and innuendo that the queens were clamouring for in grandma's frilly petticoats; of being too safe for the gays and too dangerous for the straights. I was therefore hoping that VOL 2., despite being split into eight playlets, would prove a more unified experience and would address itself unambiguously to the gay audience it would inevitably attract. As the first of the constituent short plays began, I worried that history was repeating itself, but as the evening progressed, my fears were gradually assuaged, and the plays found their focus by voicing the concerns of a community to that community in a language it could understand.
But enough of such generalities! Let's get down to the nitty-gritty.
> 'Katong Fugue' (* out of *****)
Well, I suppose the title is clever. "Fugue" can mean two things: either it is "a contrapuntal composition in which a short melody or phrase (the subject) is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others" or it is "a state or period of loss of awareness of one's identity". In 'Katong Fugue' it is both, because the protagonist is a Bach-loving pianist (he plays onstage) who is striving to hide his homosexuality from his mother and, on some level, from himself.
But such a pun is not enough to sustain a whole play - even if it is only ten minutes long - and sadly, there was little else to recommend 'Katong Fugue'.
For a start, it lacked a plot, or any noticeable form of development. We are shown a son who locks himself in his room and plays a piano; we are shown a mother who worries about him. The more he locks himself away, the more she worries. Lock, worry, lock, worry.
In a ten-minute play, this is not necessarily a failing, of course - and indeed, the play was hardly trying to be a potboiler narrative. Instead (I assume) it was trying to be a mood piece, but that meant it had to rely on inventive dialogue which could circumvent repetition, and also on strong performances that could hold the audience's attention. Neither was present.
First the dialogue: I don't consider myself terribly knowledgeable about poetry, but I have read some of Alfian's poems and I thought they were pretty good. So I was rather surprised to hear the sententious and ungainly wannabe-verse that issued inorganically from the characters' mouths and flapped about like a chintz curtain caught in a draught. At its best, it was appropriate but obvious, as when the son's semi-closeted inertia was likened to being part on land, part in the sea, just like Katong (although incessant repetition soon made a vice out of this small virtue). At its worst it was ugly. I may slightly misquote, but lines like "You are a beached whale; I can hear you groaning" fell marginally short of a bathos they never even intended.
Perhaps I am being too hard on the dialogue; perhaps there was a way to say the lines that would have made them sound great. If there was, the actors didn't know about it. Newbie Tan Shou Chen looked right for the part of the son (willowy, angst-ridden), but someone forgot to tell him that you are allowed to use more than one emotion per performance. Veteran Nora Samosir wasn't very interested in emotional range either, and shuffled around the stage like a tired old Sadako, whining nasally in one of the most affected voices I can remember hearing. Samosir has done much better work in the past. She should have known better.
And to return to the grouse I started with, 'Katong Fugue' seemed to be pitched less to the well-dressed young men who populated the audience than to their mothers who populated it not. Certainly, any gay crowd - even in supposedly conservative Singapore - has heard all this coming out stuff a million times by now and is well and truly over it.
Which meant that the only thing 'Katong Fugue' had to recommend it was Tan's beautiful piano playing, which did its best to create the mood of troubled contemplation that the dialogue and acting were inadvertently destroying. And that's just not enough.
> 'Supper at Maxwell' (** out of *****)
Half way through the second of the evening's plays, I began to worry that Alfian had had an attack of the metaphysicals. Lit grads among you will know that the English metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century were famous for hanging their poems on a central conceit, an unusual and striking metaphor. In the most commonly cited example, John Donne's 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning', two lovers are likened to a pair of compasses, because even when they are apart, they are together. One accusation often leveled at the metaphysicals is that they cared more about their witty conceits and showing off their cleverness than they did about their poems proper, and the same accusation could be leveled at Alfian in his first two plays. In the first, the conceits were whales and the coast as metaphors for coming out; in the second they were blindness and deafness as metaphors for unrequited love and lack of communication. Sadly, these conceits were neither as witty as the average metaphysical poet's, nor were the texts they were housed in as accomplished as the poems of the old masters. In fact, I couldn't help feeling as I watched 'Supper at Maxwell' that Alfian had nothing to say other than "look at this clever metaphor."
The plot, such as it was, can be summarised thusly: Danny (Chua Enlai) fancies a hearing-impaired guy; Gordon (Pierre Goh) fancies Danny, who is blind to his advances. Oh yes, and Danny and Gordon are in a hawker centre and are friends and talk a lot. What they talked about exactly appears not to have lodged in my memory. It struck me at the time as so much filler. However, I seem to recall that some of this filler was mildly amusing and made the audience laugh. And at least 'Supper at Maxwell' was rarely painful in the way 'Katong Fugue' had been - it was just that it was twice as long as it needed to be to get the point across.
Chua and Goh did a respectable job of passing the minutes. Chua put in another of his over-enunciated but engaging performances, and the twinkle in his eye sold him as the sex-mad disco bunny he was supposed to be. Goh managed to sustain an earnestness that, to his credit, didn't quite become grating, and he coupled it with a believable combination of affection for Chua's character and mock despair at his wild ways.
In fact, it is a shame that director Ivan Heng didn't trust his actors to carry the piece on their own and instead chose to supplement their acting with surreal moments that were playing straight to the least sophisticated of the groundlings. Whenever Chua said something particularly outrageous, the other patrons of the hawker centre would use their fingers and thumbs to mime the "loser" sign behind his back before returning sharply to their silent conversations. Similarly, when Chua described what he would like to do in bed with the object of his affection, he acted it out, graphically, and with enthusiastic sound effects. In a play that was otherwise striving for realism, these pantomime-moments just looked silly, and while they may have got laughs from half the audience, I'm fairly sure they got cringes from the other half.
is good with the past and its consequences. He makes you want to find
out more and makes you feel guilty that you don't already know. He makes
you examine the foundations of the present and discover their fragility.
He makes you understand that things should not be forgotten'
> 'Raffles City Rendezvous' (**1/2 out of *****)
The third play, 'Raffles City Rendezvous', continued the evening's gradual upward trend, largely because Alfian had finally found something interesting he wanted to say. Having celebrated their third anniversary with a threesome, a couple - one older and richer; one younger and better-looking - finds that their relationship is not as stable as they had imagined.
Alfian does a thorough (if very slightly laboured) job of exploring the dynamics of a May-September gay relationship: the gym memberships and designer clothes; the worry that each partner loves the other for the wrong reasons; the pressure to provide and to be provided for. It is great to see him writing thought-provoking stuff, because he is very good at it - perhaps he just needs to work with something a little more concrete than a central metaphor. Also, there is absolutely no question here that he is speaking directly to his intended audience, neither toning anything down for stolid aunties who may have wandered in nor camping it up for giggly girls who have come for a taste of the exotic; no: this one is purely for the boys. And happily, now he has hit his stride, the rest of the evening never again degenerates into the banal metaphysics or the target-audience confusion of the first two plays.
If there is a flaw in the writing here, it is yet again that Alfian is easily tempted into repetition and likes to make a point three times before moving on to the next. This trait is present in all eight plays to a greater or lesser extent, and I won't mention it again for fear of becoming repetitive myself.
But the main reason this play failed to impress as much as it should was the acting. Neither Bill Ang as the older partner, Mike, nor Phin Wong as the younger, Kiat, was poor in and of themselves (though Ang stumbled on his lines a couple too many times for comfort), but the chemistry they shared was that of people who had met for the first time just before curtain-up. And that makes you not care about their relationship, which is rather important here, to say the least.
> 'California Dreaming' (***1/2 out of *****)
'California Dreaming' ended the first half of the production on the highest note yet. I think the best way to describe it is by comparison: it was the distilled and purified essence of 'Mardi Gras', The Necessary Stage's "fundraiser" production from 2003. Where 'Mardi Gras' was bloated, confused and hung on at least two atrocious performances, 'California Dreaming' was tight(er), focused and well-acted.
Of the three actors involved, Harris Zaidi deserves special credit as flamboyant Jeff, who wants to put aside the politics and enjoy Singapore's unofficial Pride party like there's no tomorrow (his pout deserves its own applause), and Sebastian Tan manages the difficult task of making his killjoy activist interesting and likeable.
Perhaps the agitprop in the writing here is slightly unwieldy - but then why shouldn't it be? Gay rights is not one of those comfortable issues where the battle has already been won and it's all over bar the brandy and cigars; it is a fight that is still raging and raging hard, and if there is a little too much anger in Alfian's tone for him to be credited with sophistication, then I see that as a good thing. It shows the powers that be that they're in for a fight.
> 'The Kings of Ann Siang Hill' and 'The Widow of Fort Road' (**** out of *****)
These two plays were not shown consecutively on the night, but since they dealt with the same theme - the relationship between the present and the past - I have chosen to depart from my chronological recap and cover them together.
The past is easily forgotten, and nowhere is this more true than in a community that lives for the present, rushing to keep up with the latest trends and discarding them the second something newer comes along. So this makes it particularly poignant when the past comes back to haunt us anyway, catching us unawares or crawling determinedly through the fog of time and neglect to remind us that there was once a time other than now when things were not so easy. Alfian understands this poignancy and channels it adroitly.
'The Kings of Ann Siang Hill' is set in a gay sauna. (Which has got to be a first for the Singapore stage.) Although the Esplanade Studio remains at its normal temperature, you can almost feel the heat thanks to the sultry looks of the towel-clad cast as they mill about, cruising each other. Sex and a frisson of menace hang in the air.
It is here that Heng introduces a sparkling little directorial set piece that comments on the scene it interrupts as much as it pleases the audience: enthroned on a piano (which has been a multi-purpose piece of furniture all the way through), Alan* (Ben Xiao) is wheeled on and, in celebration of his Adonis-like beauty, the cast members abandon their cruising and join in a camp little song and dance number to honour him as their idol. Eventually they peel off, fluttering like butterflies. Suddenly the menace is gone, and all that remains is a faintly ridiculous obsession with youth and beauty: something shallow, something silly, but not something threatening - in spite of their hungry eyes and ripped physiques, these men are possessed by nothing more dangerous than a schoolgirl's crush.
In this now-demystified environment we see pretty much exactly what we had expected: middle-aged, overweight Wee Kim (Tony Quek) approaches Alan, ostensibly to chat him up. Of course, Alan is having none of it and says so in no uncertain terms. For his part, Wee Kim insists that he is not, in fact, interested in Alan sexually, he merely wishes to talk to him, and then somehow we end up with the older man lecturing the younger on Singaporean Gay History 101 and the differences in opportunity between the past and the present.
Admittedly, this whole scenario is a fairly transparent excuse for Alfian to say his piece, but he says it persuasively and eloquently, and the actors help by playing (and looking) their parts perfectly. It gets even more contrived when the twist arrives and we discover that Wee Kim was only speaking to Alan on behalf of his studly son, who is interested, but shy.
Such contrivances are easily dismissed as flaws, but here I think they make an interesting point. When we think of gay theatre we think of the young: young love, young lust, young angst, young disease, young death, the persecution of the young. Old gay people have no real theatrical existence. Similarly, gay families do not, cannot plausibly theatrically exist. By recognising this but then showing them anyway, Alfian challenges us to question this status quo. And indeed Wee Kim's advice to Alan at the end of the play (something like "go and make your own family") is important.
'The Widow of Fort Road' also shows a past that has been neglected, almost forgotten, having been eclipsed by the present on which it has left only the faintest of marks.
In a dream, Sandra (Serene Chen) is visited by her ex-colleague, Kelvin (Loong Seng Onn), whom she used to have a crush on until he was arrested in an entrapment sting at the gay cruising ground at Tanjong Rhu back in 1993 and subsequently imprisoned (this play is based on real events).
After his arrest, Kelvin left the country, losing his ties to his past and, seemingly, to his future, for he is aimless and uprooted overseas. Indeed, his only connection to the present is the fading memory of him held by a forgotten woman, Sandra, the "widow" of the title.
Alfian is good with the past and its consequences. He makes you want to find out more and makes you feel guilty that you don't already know. He makes you examine the foundations of the present and discover their fragility. He makes you understand that things should not be forgotten.
Serene Chen, also, is excellent at drawing out the pathos of the scene. She gives an honest, unaffected performance that doesn't pretend to great pain but admits to a loss that still rankles. And it is a credit to her that one almost fails to notice that the dialogue between her and Loong is almost entirely composed of the uncomfortable exposition of backstory. (E.g., KELVIN: "Do you remember that time when we blah blah blah?" SANDRA: "Yes, I do." A long description follows, despite their both remembering exactly what happened.) Still, I suppose that's the only way to write a play of this nature, and at least the exposition is interesting.
'Downstream, Delta' (**1/2 out of *****)
A slight lapse came with 'Downstream, Delta', not because actors Robin Goh (playing gay guy, Felix) and Brendon Fernandez (playing straight guy, Jack) didn't do their jobs just fine, but because Alfian didn't seem to have much to say here and, just like 'The Widow of Fort Road', anything he did have to say, he said through backstory exposition - only this time it was rather more dull.
And again, he was dealing with an implausible situation, as in 'The Kings of Ann Siang Hill' - but this time the situation (gay guy thinks he's picking up guy who later turns out to be straight; friendship results; eventually they celebrate their "anniversary") didn't seem important enough to offset its implausibility.
All of this meant that we were watching something that was both uninteresting and unlikely. Hardly riveting.
Own Private Toa Payoh' (**** out of *****)
But probably the main reason for the success of this play was the tangible chemistry shared by Micheas Chan (as Aloysius, the top) and Alex Ng (as Meng, the bottom). For this play to work at all, we had to be convinced that the pair had going not just a fling, not just an attraction, but a longstanding relationship based on love and trust. Put simply, we were convinced.
Heng helped the scene along by resisting the temptation to slide into shouting and emoting, where many directors would have succumbed. His restraint proved infinitely more touching than pyrotechnics would have done as it made the pair's couplehood seem even more real.
The title of the production gives me an easy way to end this review, and dammit if I'm not going to take it. LANDMARKS: ASIAN BOYS VOL. 2 is important: it is the first local play I can remember that attempts to address the whole experience of being gay rather than just some subsection or other of homosexuality. Even if it does not always succeed in this ambitious goal, it does not sell out to meaningless camp as do many, and after a shaky start, it knows who it is talking to and speaks honestly to them. It is, to give way to the inevitable, a landmark production.
*Are my ears failing me? In the programme it says Alan, but I could have sworn I heard Alvin on the night...