Affluence, academic competitiveness, early successes (getting it all right by your early 30s), neuroses, conspiracy theories, and crass materialism are some of the themes, metaphors, metonyms, and descants explored by young Singaporean playwright, Chong Tze Chien. Though his plays are set in Singapore, audiences in North America can empathize with the affluent cocoon that surrounds the characters in his plays, for it is leitmotif of all “First Worlds”, especially in the wake of Sept-11 and the latest Gulf war.
If paranoia and schizophrenic delusions grip the anti-characters of Chong’s plays, the same could be said for the human theatre in most parts of the world -,especially those in the Western hemisphere where fear and increased security measures have made movement less free. This is especially true moving from the “Third World” to the “First World”. And now with SARS going from an endemic disease to an epidemic, the value of human life is being reassessed—its premium questioned by medical practitioners, ethicists and philosophers. All of these issues are put to task in Chong’s collection of four plays.
Juxtaposed between plays is an interview with Chong by Alvin Tan, the founder and artistic director of Necessary State, where Chong’s works are staged. And Dr K.K. Seet, a theatre studies academic attached to the National University of Singapore, provides an erudite introduction to the collection. Through the introduction and interview, the reader is given a chance to explore the creative process as well as the issues and features of the plays.
Through a mix of quasi-realist and naturalistic theatrical styles, Chong draws his audiences into his first two plays with the use of multipath story lines—by interspersing unrelated scenes with alternate story-plots, and bringing them together in a crashing denouement. This was what he tried to do in Pan-Island Expressway (PIE), a play named after a vehicular channel that dissects the nexus of Singaporean transport and traffic. The play begins with the self-reinvention by the protagonist, James, who is a playwright/screenwriter under interrogation for purporting incendiary elements in the subtext of his play. It is ironic that Chong chose to set James’s birthday as August 9th, 1965, the National Day for Singapore. The paranoia against communism (echoing McCarthyism) is explored through the ostentatious conspiracy theory suggested by a lady interrogator. Scenes of the interrogation are interlaced with scenes of a couple in a confessorial mode as well as of two actors rowing over issues of money and materialism. There is also the hint of a political conspiracy surrounding the death of the former boyfriend of the play’s videographer, Claire, who committed suicide somewhere in the course of the play. A struggle of power exists between James and the interrogator, as each tries to ascribe creative privilege over the writing of the play, and by extrapolating this context we could allude both to the hawks in the American Defence Ministry trying to rewrite the political historiography in their own terms, as well as to the Singaporean government’s efforts to keep its citizens in obeisance through mind-control.
Spoilt explores the themes of self-destruction, values, cravings, sado-masochism and depression. The dead man’s confession is a devise used by in short stories, films, animes and plays. Yet the perspective used by Chong is fresh. He takes familiar stories of disillusioned yuppies and familial/romantic relationships, and grinds them into a kaleidoscopic panorama of narratives. Though the protagonist is a maniacal but dead woman (Tracy Tan), the microscope also moves to the dead woman’s ex-boyfriend with his ghost woman who happens to look like Tracy (a psychological metaphor of his latent desire for Tracy), and that of her parents and their relationship with each other before finally returning to her in her parting and insightful speech. Her father’s obsession with his dead daughter left his still living wife both dejected and rejected. He speaks to her but often ignores her attempts at communication with him, as well as her desire for his attention. The Rapunzel in the story is the alter ego of Tracy. In psychoanalytic theory, the story of Rapunzel and that of the man who lived within a metaphorical child for ninety-nine years would have stood for the various longings and desires of Tracy, one which she seemed unable to achieve except through the emancipation of her death. To put it succinctly, Chong terms the various narratives as being “about losing control with control”.
While the first two plays explore multiple realities, the next two plays deal with plays that exploit the experience of the audience when interacting with plays staged on specific and confined sights. “Lift My Mind” is staged in a cargo lift, which convincingly conveys the feeling of confinement and claustrophobia to the audience. The issues explored here are that of the periphery finding the centre, with the peripherals epitomized by Ah Tok, an illegal worker; Monica, a manager of a cabaret with a desperate wish to immigrate who is often rejected by more affluent countries due to her lack of formal education; and Sherry Candy, the transsexual cabaret performer who lives within the margin of a closed society that refuses to acknowledge her psychological needs. Each of these three characters aspires towards the centre. Ah Tok wants to embrace his idol, a singer on TV whom he became infatuated with; Monica wants to leave Singapore for what she considers “greener pastures”; and Sherry wants to be accepted by men as who she is, yet has a strong need to become a real woman. Despite an increasingly liberated society, a person with little education, an illegal immigrant and a transsexual share the common thread of being perceived as societal freaks. Sherry Candy is murdered by Ah Tok in his amorous disillusionment and Monica migrates but the latter two still living characters are unable to break out of the periphery and remain trapped in despair.
“Is This Our Stop” takes place fully in a bus that travels the width and breath of Singapore. Four actors take the role of a single character but at various stages of her life. Though the characters are named Tracy, Tracy 2, Tracy 3 and Tracy 4 and are supposed to stand for her at different ages and for her spilt personalities, boundaries become blurred, and the latter three manifestations of Tracy are bodies within bodies of geopolitical and conscious alternate realities. Each manifestation of Tracy launches into polemical rhetoric of the establishment, a bathos that does not escape the penetrative incisiveness of the playwright. Yet within the mainstream polemics are also the darker versions, especially when each Tracy takes turn to partake of a game that shakes the audiences dangerously out of their comfort zone, peppered with traces of pseudo-eroticism, cannibalism and sexual license.
More importantly, in each of the plays, Chong forsakes apodictic philosophizing and allows the audience to draw their conclusion. While his style sometimes seems obvious and slightly contrived, it does not cramp on the natural flow of the plays. He brings about a fresh perspective of looking at life, though the themes are not new and the style grew out of the traditions of many 20th century playwrights from Tennyson Williams, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter to more contemporary playwrights.
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