Hitting Where It Hurts
In the way it dealt with its subject matter, Yu's script always came across as intelligent, sincere and respectful and never sensationalised.
The last play of Ovidia Yu's which I saw was The Silence of the Kittens (2006) and while I thought the script for that play was reasonably solid, I also felt that it had the air of being a first draft and could have done with some thoughtful rewriting. Because Hitting (On) Women was being re-staged after winning Best New Play at Theatre Idols 2007, I thought that any earlier problems the script had had would have been ironed out: the script would be tightened to showcase Yu's rich narratives and acute ear for dialogue while eschewing her lapses into the overwrought and heavy-handed.
Indeed, I did find the script for Women more consistently engaging than Kittens'. Even though large tracts of this very intimate play consisted simply of two lovers (Woman played by Janice Koh and Karen played by Serene Chen) recounting their lives together, Women never dragged because the characters were always vividly alive and Yu timed the pace of the play well. I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the situation being played out - that of an abusive relationship - but I can vouch for the intensity of emotion that the play made me feel. It was clear that a lot of thought and heart had gone into crafting the story and the emotions of the two women. You really believed in the painful twisting of mental knots that a character like Woman had to endure when stuck in a relationship with a violent lover - should she stay out of love or go out of fear? The play explored many ideas related to this central theme of abuse - how insecurity about oneself can lead to abuse by others; how Woman, unnamed throughout the play presumably to represent women in general, is ill-served by society - and while this exploration was not particularly fresh or insightful, it was nonetheless satisfying because of its quiet yet hard-hitting approach to dealing with such a taboo subject. In the way it dealt with its subject matter, Yu's script always came across as intelligent, sincere and respectful and never sensationalised.
(I should add that the themes of the play were also nicely brought out by the set design. While I personally found the set overly cluttered, I have to admit that the symbolism added a nice touch: Woman is dwarfed by over-sized pieces of furniture which make her seem like a lost, little child and the floor is covered in twisted telephone wires which she unravels during the course of the play, just as she unravels the metaphorical threads that bind and suffocate her.)
Unfortunately, some of the weaknesses I saw in Kittens reared their ugly heads in Women as well. Again, Yu's sidesteps into comedy, while inspired in some places (notably in the form of a church counselor who hears only what she wants to hear), were insipid in others. Indictments of Penal Code 377A which criminalizes homosexual acts between men, for example, were clumsily written and did not fit the intimate tone of the play. They were too contextually specific and this made the actors sound like they were suddenly standing on political soapboxes. Such political commentary worked better in Happy Endings: Asian Boys Vol. 3 because it was more in tune with the nature of the play. And while one such misstep may have gone unnoticed, to have belaboured the point a second time and then a third bordered on the cringe-worthy - especially when the execution was lazy: it seemed at one point that Yu was saying lesbianism was illegal in Singapore but then, at another point, she seemed to be saying it wasn't. I also found myself distracted by the introduction of a seemingly never-ending train of characters making cameo appearances. These were largely unnecessary - particularly when Loretta Chen's performances were hit and miss (I liked her ease as Woman's friend but found her to be stiff as Woman's lover) and neither Benjamin Ng nor Peggy Ferroa's voice on the phone left much of an impression anyway.
Bringing the script to the stage was director Samantha Scott-Blackhall, who continues her run of very competently staged plays. For better or for worse, her direction rarely draws attention to itself. Instead, the play was more a showcase for the two seasoned actors and both rose beautifully to the challenge by delivering intense performances.
Koh's breakdown scenes were particularly difficult to watch - it was impossible not to be drawn into her character's pain. She was well cast for the role because, while she has the ability to display all her emotions right there on the surface, she still hints at hidden depths. Koh is like a bird - seemingly small and fragile but actually stronger than you think. This captures the complexity of the character and the situation and makes the character believable when she finally stands up for herself at the end of the play.
Chen had the showier role as the mannish Karen. Chen was practically unrecognisable with cropped hair, polo and jeans and because of the way she had completely transformed her mannerisms and physicality. Some may have felt her performance bordered on stereotype but then again, all stereotypes are based ultimately on some truth and I felt that Chen managed to tap into that truth for her performance. While the play started out a little shaky as both actresses took some time to find their rhythm, once the momentum started building, I was totally lost in their performances. The climax of the play, which involved an extremely aggressive and violent scene between the two women, filled me with a surge of emotion. It was a truly cathartic experience: the actresses had amazing chemistry together and were completely in the moment; they were angry, confused, hurting, loving and afraid, and they made me feel all of these things.
I left the theatre that evening emotionally drained - and deeply grateful for all the love I have in my own life.