>PAN ISLAND EXPRESSWAY by TheatreWorks

>reviewed by daniel teo

>date: 3 apr 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the black box forth canning
>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.
 

>>>>> BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING

And you thought those National Education lessons taught you everything you needed to know about our motherland.

With razor sharp wit and an almost painful sense of irony, PAN ISLAND EXPRESSWAY(PIE) ripped apart the illusions our young nation has built up within a short span of 30 progressive years. Every symbol of national pride so familiar to us was subverted by clever wordplay and skillful plot maneuvers - our vulnerable national mythologies left exposed as these signifiers were metamorphosised beyond recognition.

As the audience streamed into the theatre, they were asked if they were civil servants. Orange stickers were pasted on their shirts if they were honest (or stupid) enough to admit as his/her date feared for the worst ahead. Spooky but that little sense of frivolous paranoia fun set the tone for the night to come.

Talking about IU units, ERP gantries, bar codes on IC, smart cards and the whole gamut of possible surveillance instruments, the cast traded urban legends as they spoke to the audience as well as amongst themselves. Clever little setup as the distance between the actors and audience was drastically reduced in this camp-fire atmosphere of story trading - us the defenseless citizens against the omnipotent state. At the same time illusions about simply watching the play passively are dashed as the actors make it clear enough that the play is not going to be comfortable "I'm-just-in-the-shadows" viewing.

>>'Every symbol of national pride so familiar to us was subverted by clever wordplay and skillful plot maneuvers - our vulnerable national mythologies left exposed as these signifiers were metamorphosised beyond recognition.'

Using the postmodern play-within-a-play structure, the production worked on a dual level of decontextualised alienation and symbolic attachment. Alienating the audience through a semi-Brechtian stage setup, the audience was forced to evaluate actively the logic of the play. At the same time, attachment to the play was incessantly fostered through our very close proximity to the subject matter. To the director's credit, this duality not only worked - it elevated the play to a different level altogether.

The first gauntlet was thrown in a hilarious parody of our confused Singaporean cultural and linguistic identities. Speaking local dialogue, complete with Hokkien profanities, in standard Queen's English, it threw open the floodgates in questioning our national identity - afterall if even language cannot be used to define ourselves, what else is left for the average Singaporean to associate with his / her fellow men?

Explosive and wonderfully strident, the script was bursting with provocative lines that carried the play along with the burst of energy it started. With a generous amount of humour, the lines poked fun at everybody leaving nobody and nothing sacrosanct - even the playwright was brutally attacked for the eternal dilemma of being a recorder of human foibles rather than an active participant in life. Taboo topics such as racial divisions were all fair game for dissection. Utterly wicked, the lines struck all too close to home - "The word government appears twice in your script. That is all it takes to make it political".

 

Talented direction created a rarely seen synergy between the director's vision and the playwright's own. Each stage direction worked only to enhance the beauty of the original script and the result of this brilliant partnership was truly astounding. The sets as an example of such spot-on insights ensured that the play operated on an emotive as well as intellectual level that made the rich multi-layered dynamics of the script possible. Sparse but not barren, the police tapes clearly defined the boundaries of the stage laying exposed the offstage areas where the actors changed and talked. There was never any attempt at suspension of disbelief - just pure magical acting on bareboards and a whole load of fictional realism.

With such a setup, the actors deserve the applause for being one of the most professional I have seen in years. Except for one little mishap, production level and discipline was evidently high throughout the entire night. As an ensemble, the cast was an outstanding lot. Without any fall-back security from fancy sets and superfluous soundscapes, the cast more than held their own on the stage.

As the audience streamed out of the theatre, one civil servant's date thought out loud "How come they stuck the orange sticker on you but never do anything huh?" I don't know where she was throughout the play but that remark sent shivers when I stepped into the crisp evening air of Fort Canning, rejoining my fellow Singaporeans on the expressway.