Men in Action
In a show where the writing failed to hit the mark, it is no surprise that the most entertaining scene had nothing to do with a script.
Most play programmes are a tawdry mixture of pretension and hype. So, for the most part, is the programme for Confessions of 300 Unmarried Men; however, unlike most of its ilk, the Confessions programme offers something else as well: a deconstructive critique of the play.
This critique begins on the first page, which advertises a scene that never took place, misnames actor Timothy Nga as Timothy Ng, and mislabels Ekachai Uekrongtham as "artistic airector". (Although, on second thoughts, this last might not be a mistake, since it accords with the play's breezy flatulence.) Clearly, the people involved with this production did not care about getting the details right.
This becomes even more obvious on reading playwright Tan Tarn How's bio in the programme. Tan writes that he "only took part in this because of the irresistible charm of Ekachai and because he needs the moolah to feed his two teenage girls." Presumably Tan did not wish this comment to be taken seriously, but, sadly, its truth is borne out by the paucity of his contribution to this evening of short plays themed on unmarried men.
Tan's play, entitled Picking Up / Making Up / Breaking Up, began the performance proper after a brief and forgettable prelude in which the three actors, Nga, Benjamin Ng and Paerin Choa, told extremely old, toothlessly misogynistic jokes to the audience. In Picking Up, Nga stood centre stage and spouted stereotyped lines from a bad date movie - or, to be more accurate, half a bad date movie. I say half because there was no leading lady present for Nga to woo and he merely pretended she was responding to him, but his lines didn't really make much sense without her contribution, and this made it seem like some crazed film editor had decided to cut half the camera angles from a movie scene, leaving only the hero in lonely, nonsensical close-up. When writing a scene where the audience only hears one half of a conversation (such as when a character is on the phone), it is essential to ensure that the narrative comes across. That an able writer like Tan had not bothered to do this is very worrying.
If anything, though, Tan's contribution got worse as the evening progressed. Picking Up had been split into three parts and, although the sequence in which Confessions' scenes and playlets were to be performed was printed in the programme, the first time I saw the production (for my sins, I saw it twice), I did not even recognise parts two and three when they arrived. I was not alone. In a Q&A session with the cast and a couple of the writers after the Saturday matinee, a large number of the audience's questions were to do with what on earth was going on at certain points of the performance. Nearly all of these questions received the somewhat circular answer, "Well, that was part of Picking Up / Making Up / Breaking Up."
It's not surprising, really. As well as (by his own admission) doing it only for the money, it seems that Tan was uninterested in his subject matter. In the programme, he spent the majority of the blurb each writer was allotted discussing, not single men, but married women with children. Perhaps he should have written about them instead.
But if Tan's contribution was inadequate and off topic, it was nothing compared to the piffling irrelevance served up by Eleanor Wong. Again, the programme clues us in. Says Wong of her contribution, Skin:
"My inspiration for writing Skin was uhm... Skin. Thinking about it. How it feels. What it does."
Whereas all the other writers had taken a full page to discuss their plays and had at least mentioned unmarried men, this was all Wong wrote. But in fact, it proved quite appropriate as Skin itself was not much longer and no more germane. Skin took the form of a poem about 15 lines long (a generous estimate) which was read out by two not-quite-synchronous voices over loud music while a couple of the actors cavorted abstractly downstage.
It's not the blatant irrelevance of Skin to the stated theme of the evening that pisses me off (I find ACTION's annual themed productions rather artificial at the best of times); what pisses me off is that someone got paid for scribbling something so paltry and undramatic - and that in the end it couldn't even be heard anyway. Wong has written plays that have achieved a permanent place in the Singaporean canon; she should know better.
Fortunately, the other three writers for Confessions, Ovidia Yu, Alfian Sa'at and Desmond Sim, were trying harder. Of the three, Yu's contribution was by far the best. Even then there were problems because Yu never really got inside the heads of her characters and her two playlets were little more than strings of topical references (Crazy Horse, Vietnamese brides, etc.) used as metaphors for the male condition. But at least Yu was honest enough to admit her shortcomings upfront, saying in the programme that she "writes from a female Singaporean perspective, having no other"; and while she may have been an odd choice to write a play about single men, she fulfilled her end of the bargain to the best of her ability.
Yu had clearly had fun writing her plays and the warmth she put into them brought out the best in the actors: Nga's easygoing charm, Ng's mischief and Choa's... Well, at least Choa, who delivers every line like a small boy performing for his grandma on her birthday, was markedly less irritating in Yu's plays than in the others. Yu also allowed plenty of room for theatricality in her scripts and Paul Sadot, a British director known for the physicality of his work, gratefully seized on it and wrung plenty more laughs from the already-amusing words.
Perhaps the most effective segment came in the second of Yu's plays, Bottomless Men, when we saw only the backs of three guys sitting in the front row of the Crazy Horse cabaret and talking cock about it. Sadot had lightly choreographed the guys' arm gestures to reinforce the individual neuroses their words expressed, before throwing them into a mock-raunchy dance number replete with gold lamé lion costumes. This mingling of casual charm and broad slapstick married perfectly with Yu's writing.
Sadot didn't seem to get on as well with the other writers. He failed to infuse any animation into Desmond Sim's My Bird Can Sing Louder Than Your Bird, in which three old men meet up in a Tiong Bahru coffee shop to belabour a cheap metaphor beyond all sense and sustainability (the metaphor being that their caged birds represent their relationships with women). And Sadot seemed to leave actor Benjamin Ng much to his own devices in Sim's other, infinitely more bearable contribution, Who Wants to Marry Ah Seng? This was a wise decision, as Ng's earthy affability and perfectly calibrated physicality almost managed to hide the fact that the playlet was nothing more than a statistic put onstage (the statistic being that 20% of Singaporean women are willing to marry down).
And Sadot was understandably at a loss when faced with Alfian Sa'at's resolutely untheatrical Blush, which is essentially a poem for three voices. Alfian had set himself the task of writing about men "whose shyness is so crippling, whose awkwardness so unnerving, that they regress into some sort of autism when they come into contact with women." He didn't succeed. From what I've seen of Alfian's work, his characters tend not to be shrinking violets. On the contrary, they have a tendency to lecture - and it seems that in this playlet, Alfian was no more in touch than usual with his inner wallflower. Too often, the speeches he gave his characters devolved into predictable litanies of their actions (e.g. something like "I am looking at you; I turn away; I look at my shoes," etc.) or else they got caught up in pseudo-poetic clichés, such as the following clanger: "I will grow on you. I will grow in you. We will grow old on an island where the sun is always setting."
Sadly, even when Alfian came close to establishing believable voices for his characters, his actors let him down. The easy self-confidence that Nga's good looks have given him stopped him from inhabiting a man worried about his bald spot and his inferiority to his brother. Ng, the strongest link for the rest of the show, couldn't rein in his accent enough to suit the urbane cadences of Alfian's dialogue. And Choa was just painfully fake.
Nor did it help that lighting designer Suven Chan had turned down the lights so low we could barely see the actors. The gloom exacerbated the lack of aural and psychological stimulation and made me feel like falling asleep.
In a show where the writing failed to hit the mark, it is no surprise that the most entertaining scene had nothing to do with a script. Sadot had a penchant for adding filler scenes to the play, probably to help the writers' meagre offerings seem substantial and probably also so he could indulge in the physicality so many of the plays deprived him of. Many of these intermezzos were pointless and stretched, but one was very funny indeed. In it, Choa dragged up as a Chinese torch songstress and lipsynched poorly to a ballad of love lost. But Choa didn't matter. What mattered was Nga standing upstage, miming the melodramatic actions Choa was singing about with the most perfect deadpan look on his face. It doesn't sound particularly funny in this retelling, and indeed it wouldn't have been the funniest part of most shows with a comic element, but I had laughed so rarely during the performance that I was heartily relieved to do so.
Sad to say, this low standard is nothing new. ACTION usually manages a decent job of its annual one-word, imported script, marquee productions (W;t, Proof, Iron and, coming soon, Doubt) but its annual themed plays (Painted Stories, 1 Bed 3 Pillows, Fruitplays and Waterloo Stories) and much of its other work have been uneven and seem to be getting worse. Again, let's see what the programme has to say: "While its predecessor [the execrable Confessions of 3 Unmarried Women] was basically three monologues strung together with a simple storyline, Confesssions [sic] of 300 Unmarried Men rely [sic] on more devices and techniques. Do we succeed in getting men to bare? You decide." And again, the programme's right: I, along with ACTION's audiences, do decide. And I'm afraid my decision is that ACTION needs to get its act together, stop relying on fancy premises to sell its plays and introduce some quality control.