Simply Good Theatre
Underneath the melodrama, there is an urgency and poignancy.
It was the premiere of the English version of two Chinese monodramas, The Eagle and the Cat written by Kuo Pao Kun and My Mother's Chest by Zhu Cai Zhen. Eagle-Cat invites us into the self-discovery of a Chinese National lost and frustrated in Singapore. This surreal depiction of a man transformed into a cat and back into human form is in contrast to the realistic setting of Chest. With an old chest and several props around, Chest unveils a past charged with emotional tension and startling honesty.
For those unfamiliar with Kuo Pao Kun's works, one may be taken aback with the bare stage and zero props. The focus here is on the actor and so the actor carries the weight of the script upon his voice, movement and every subtle expression. While Remesh Panicker (who came down with pneumonia) would have probably given a more colourful performance, his substitute, T. Sasitharan, artistic director of The Substation, nonetheless gave an intense dramatised reading of the script. The canvas set by Huang Shu Liang looked very much like a modern water colour painting with brush strokes in random order. Its importance doesn't come in until the very end and for most of the time, we concern ourselves with this lone man on stage, set to alienate us from a familiar world.
The buzzing noise at the beginning throws us off track for a moment but this mood is maintained by the half-lit, half-shadowed Sasitharan who delivers an enigmatic Godot-like prologue. "Nothing has happened," he reiterates. He keeps mentioning a stare which can only have a chilling effect on us as we see him hiding in dim light. And then suddenly, full lights on stage. The strange figure of prophetic tone is now full of energy.
Sasitharan plays the Chinese National spurned by the cosmetically courteous people at the embassy. He rants and raves, indignant at the kind of treatment he receives even when he has all the relevant documents. It is revealed later that he's looked down upon because he is not the prosperous and successful businessman or the like. The disconcerting experience at the embassy manifests itself again in the roads of busy Singapore: people cold and uncaring even though the country is known for its courtesy campaigns. The cold and emotionless man is so pervasive that he can even feel negative vibes radiate from the people inside their cars.
As he goes off to some quite corner to work off his frustration, he witnesses a hoard of cats of various shapes sizes, colours and ages, being chased by a group of people armed with nets. As the leader of the pact, the big, multi-coloured cat, suddenly stops to tug as his leg, the man shockingly finds himself turned into a cat himself, and so joins the cats in running away from their pursuers. He takes refuge in a drainage system and learns more about his feline condition. The reason for his transformation, as well as for all the other cats, is being niao. Niao is understood as being stubborn, persistent and idealistic. And so in the moment of such extreme feelings, the feline form takes over. A bit ludicrous but very funny.
Kuo's poetic voice emerges with an evocative simplicity as the protagonist recalls his childhood of squatting in caves of his poor village. He remembers fondly how he used to watch the eagle spread out its wings and glide towards the sun., how the sky offered freedom and space. His reminiscence glides in but also glides out as his reverie is broken by Spotty, an effeminate but polished cat. He stands in contrast to the leader, the damaged but dignified Fat Cat. Here, political undercurrents start to emanate from the situation surrounding the two camps of cats; one weathering crises as they arise, the other aspiring for overseas where they will be well-groomed and well-kept. The protagonist follows Spotty up to the 65th floor of the posh hotel nearby to have a taste of Spotty's world. When he steps out into the balcony, he meets with the eagle of his childhood, this time silently hitting against a net which leaves blood on its bald scalp and black feathers all around. The prot! agonist shouts out at him, pleading it to stop. By now the protagonist has turned back into a human and the eagle carries him and flies him back to the ground but itself flies up to hit at the net again.
Finally out of his dream-like experience, the man is left bewildered. The final moment has the human well out of the way and two spotlights on the canvas background, revealing an eagle and a cat. The Chinese title literally translates into Eagle Cat Can and writer, director and actor have shown that these two animals can evoke a wealth of responses from the sensitive listener and viewer.
My Mother's Chest, in comparison, is a more accessible piece of work because of its realistic intentions. Neo Swee Lin of My Grandson the Doctor and 12 Storeys fame, has a more credible background as a stage actress and delivers the goods as one would expect her to. She plays a middle aged woman who goes back to her old house to sift through the belongings of her newly deceased stepmother's old wooden chest. Like a good old-fashioned story, there's a story behind every item.
Neo's one-on-one with the audience is complete with nervous smoking and dramatic pauses and silences. We are kept glued to the stage, in one moment looking at a haggard woman, and in the next, at an 18-year-old beauty princess. We watch with glee as she re-lives childhood and teenhood with spirit and fire but a lot of broken pieces carry on into adulthood. It seems like a typical Cantonese drama serial to see the trials and tribulations of an illegitimate daughter of a cabaret dancer, forced to live with her father's wife and call her mother, rebelling against her but somehow returning to her all the time. But underneath the melodrama, there is an urgency and poignancy to be felt.
We see her get married to Sam whether or not her mother would have approved, bear a child, bear the brunt of the philandering husband, and break out into another heated argument with her mother when she gives the baby up to Sam. At another time, we see her going back to her old house, eating her favourite dishes cooked by the woman she both hated and loved. In several occasions, we watch the mundane, eavesdrop on the conversations, but begin to understand the unconveyed and the unspoken.
Neo keeps to a safe vocal range but makes up for it by involving herself in a greater emotional range. As she picks up the purple funeral costume that was too small for her mother, she wears it and takes on the persona of her mother. She recalls her wedding night, the pain, the terror, the subsequent venereal disease that left her barren, and some more pain and terror. Perhaps the inner demons have been exorcised as Neo retreats to the dimly lit part of the stage and a large red square cloth bearing two xi rolls down from the top to shield her. The final juxtaposition of funeral and wedding leaves us intoxicated with a befuddlement more real to Neo as the stepdaughter but powerfully transformed into a real theatrical experience.