>INVISIBILITY by Drama Box

>reviewed by adele tan

>date: 13 sep 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: chang clan association
>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.
 

>>>>>SEEN AND HEARD IN GEYLANG

It becomes increasingly clear as the show progresses that I am not just a part of a passive audience. I sit not apart from the actors and the acting, but am constantly reflected, mimicked, implicated and complicit in the performance. In a sweep of metadramatics, I am also the voyeur, the restless, the alienated and part of the urban mass, just as the actors are in their respective roles.

There is always some form of distraction or diversion of our attention either from the OHP visual projections or the noise from the surroundings. The choice of the small open-air rooftop generates a sense of uncanny proximity of the audience to the drama but the audience seldom gives an acknowledgement to those sitting right across their faces.

Such is the striking condition of invisibility.

INVISIBILITY is yet another wryly-humourous look at the afflictions of modern existence, with its requisite disconnectedness, "Automatic" mindlessness and loss of meanings. Its frank social commentary is unmistakable. It could have been another didactic diatribe against urban society but fortunately, the play staves off such a temptation. Instead, we are treated to a rich juxtaposition of styles, genres, settings and moods. Even the ending is enlightened by pathos, as the woman takes off her clothes and gives it to the man who has just been robbed of everything.

Like some multidisciplinary, temporally compressed polyglot, the play spreads its wings to range from classical Chinese history and literature to epic pugilistic (Wuxia) movements in contemporary settings like a barber shop, park and toilet, showing us quotidian but culturally impoverished past-times and "bo-liao" conversations. Nothing appears to be taken seriously. Each sequence utilizes a different portion of the rooftop, contributing to a continuously shifting dramatic action like the swift, fleeting moments of the pugilist (Yeo Yann Yann). Although presented as individuated, separated incidences, they let their resonances deflect off each other often in a most unexpected manner. Everything could look fundamentally incidental and yet at the same time incidentally fundamental. Thus, when it is shown how an ancient Chinese poet vindicates his nakedness with a conception of privacy - by exclaiming: "The world is my home, and my house is my pants. What are you people doing here in my pants?" - the later scenes would replay its reverberations by reminding the audience that we are intruding on a private space by watching the on-goings in a toilet cubicle.

>>'The play's strengths rest mostly on the sparkling dialogue in the script by Quah Sy Ren and so you can imagine my disappointment when at the night of the performance, the noises from the overhead airplanes and nearby street operas threatened to drown out the actors' voices.'

The premise of INVISIBILITY is indeed simple. The protagonist A (Zelda Ng) wants to find the secrets behind the art of becoming invisible. To her, invisibility is a state of power and pleasure (think of its analogue in the film Hollow Man), where you can do anything you wish. And so A goes on a quest for this hermit master who will teach her the skills. Yet, subversively, almost everything about the play questions the logic and ideals behind the state of invisibility. The scene in the lavatory effectively counters the idealism of invisibility. Living in an overcrowded, sanitized urban space, our existence can be as good as invisible and forgotten especially if you live in the margins, almost like the back alleys of Geylang and its subterranean status. As the man (Alvin Chew) says of the graffiti (and of defecating) in the toilet: " Why should I write to let others see? Once the urge, the desire passes, one quick wipe and it's all over. Why should I leave anything behind?"

The modern axiom of city is "Nothing lasts for very long. Everything is temporary", sardonically evidenced by our clean toilet floors such that even when your ice cream drips, you can lick up the mess on the floor.

By living as an urbanite, A is already a faceless, nameless, invisible creature in the multitudes. The play also portrays modern society as paradoxically keen on making things that should be hidden from sight become extra-visible. It railed against us loving to see naked people, suicides and broken bodies splashed all over the newspapers in a sensationalistic maelstrom. The real lives however still get hidden behind body parts. [At some point you also feel the play subtly manipulating you into enjoying the taking off of clothes on stage]. The play also presents an incisive debate about the desirability of being an invisible hermit. The play asks if invisibility makes for an escapism or abdication of political commitment and responsibility.

It asks too if the political strategy of the hermit master (Caroline Fernandez) is inadequate and anachronistic for modern society as he asks: "What can I do in the city? I am only a hermit." Instead of answers, the play frustrates and deconstructs its own findings at every turn.

The play's strengths rest mostly on the sparkling dialogue in the script by Quah Sy Ren and so you can imagine my disappointment when at the night of the performance, the noises from the overhead airplanes and nearby street operas threatened to drown out the actors' voices. The actors were also visibly struggling with the distractions. Yet strangely, these unforeseen disruptions added shades to the play. Indeed, true to the play itself, the cacophony mimics that of the city's mind-numbing music and gives reinforcement to A's shouts to the neighboring flats : "CAN YOU HEAR ME!".

Serendipitously, the wayang music comes on whilst a stylized piece of movement theatre is performed, giving an effectively charged accompaniment and making theatre ecologically responsive. If there is anything that marred my enjoyment of the play, it had to be the uneven quality of the dramatic action.

The writing outshone the acting and directing most times. The cast on the whole was competent, with Yeo Yann Yann having a slightly more outstanding performance, yet the energy levels were not quite up to expectation as they varied from scene to scene. Most times, they just were not loud enough. Perhaps the competing distractions did take its toll but one is always appreciative when the cast can make spontaneous adjustments for exigencies, especially when they know they cannot be heard. The action was not as fluid as it should have been as changeover scenes felt clumsy and hesitant. The breaks between scenes should have been incisively distinct or outrightly seamless, but neither was achieved effectively. I wonder too if the play did suffer from a reduced cast as the multiple roles created minor confusion as to the specific scene roles they play.

Director Sim Pern Yiau did a good job at creatively using the rooftop space to the maximum and creating some visually arresting guerilla action sequences. However, the action was often cast away from the audience's centre and placed in the margins, where visibility of these scenes became a problem. I question too if the change in gender of the protagonist had effectively shifted the tenor of the play or was simply gratuitous. It would have been a better adaptation if the gendered aspects were worked more saliently into the play.

Still, the play does prick your consciousness in its own intelligent and subtle ways. Having it open-air on a rooftop means it is susceptible to unintended consequences, but it is very interesting to watch how those consequences interact with both audience and actor.

An intensely self-reflexive play, it will not let you leave feeling that it has only left an "invisible" trace in your life.