>HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE by Life Lab Productions

>reviewed by sherrie lee

>date: 24 feb 1999
>time: 8pm
>venue: the substation
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Paula Vogel's HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE has an impressive list of credentials: won the the Obie Award, the Drama Desk Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Lucille Lortel Award and also the 1998 Pullitzer Prize for Drama. And truly, Vogel's exploration into the complexities in the relationship between a young girl, Li'l Bit and her uncle-by-marriage, Uncle Peck, is sensitive as well as inventive. Li'l Bit's recollections of her uncle and her famliy are presented in a series of non-chronological flashbacks, with slides and Greek Choruses to comment on the action. Life Lab Productions' ambitious project of tackling a difficult play ended up with mixed results.

The two leads, Debra Teng (who also directed the play) and John Widelock, gave commendable performaces as Li'l Bit and Uncle Peck respectively. Teng displayed a range of emotional maturity as she coped with her character's blossoming body, insensitive family and the uncle who teaches her how to drive amongst other things. Widelock played Peck in a cool and understated manner which balanced well with Teng's energetic Li'l Bit. In one particular scene, 13 year-old Li'l Bit is with Uncle Peck in his basement posing in front of his camera. As she attempts to strike provocative poses, overhead slides show Playboy subjects in those poses Peck instructed. When Peck suggests to Li'l Bit a portfolio for Playboy, she kicks up a fuss, insisting that she is only posing for him alone, and what goes on is a common scene between uncle and niece, one of resistance and persuasion, blurring the line between consent and perversion.

>>'While the two leads carried the play from beginning to end, the supporting cast varied in quality.'

While the two leads carried the play from beginning to end, the supporting cast varied in quality. Taking on multiple roles, the supporting actors played Li'l Bit's family, her schoolmates, as well as a Greek Chorus. There was little subtlety in their acting, most of the time, either choosing to be loud and crass or meek and still. But this is a gross generalisation. Yap Su-Yin who plays Li'l Bit's mother and Peck's wife (as well as other roles), led the pack with her range of acting capabilities, and in particular, in the scene where she plays Peck's wife, delivering a monologue about her relationship with Peck, and Peck's relationship with Li'l Bit.

Another grouse. The choice of venue could have been better. The limited space of the The Substation made the movement of stage hands rather distracting. In such a tightly woven play, intimate moments, shifts in nuances, are destroyed with inconsiderate exposure of props being moved in and out. Also, with the audience seated so close to the acting space, some of the details in the actors' positions may have been lost. Such a pity when every single thing counts in Vogel's script.

There were things that marred the performance, but strong acting from Teng and Widelock, and Vogel's engaging script made the ride poignant and memorable.