By Lee Jia Ping
My mom and I were watching We Are Family, the third and most recent instalment of Chinese-language theatre series Chup! Take A Break by Need Entertainment. In the middle of the first sketch, a ‘silent’ play in which two actors playing a mommy monkey and a dying baby monkey were slowly trying to convey the joys of birth and the tragedy of loss, my own mom turned to me and said, “Mo sau, ee did kum ger hey, de jo geh?” which roughly translates to: what are they trying to do and why are they wasting my time when I could be shopping downstairs at the bazaar where there is a great sale going on…
And I thought I was bringing her to the play so we could have some quality time together. Thankfully, she enjoyed the following three sketches. The play, which we caught at The Actors Studio Bangsar on Sat 30, Apr 2005, conveniently celebrated both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day at one go. In the spirit of things, I brought mom along. I also needed someone to translate the parts where the Cantonese was beyond me. So this review is partly hers as well.
The early charm of the first sketch – male baby monkey played by Earnest Chung, and mommy monkey adroitly depicted by Eli Yeong – and the impact of the tragic circumstances that followed were quickly diluted by the sheer length of the sketch. Director Ling Tang perhaps felt the need to emphasise both the joys and the pain by dragging the scenes and allowing both her actors to perform indulgently. They would have been more powerful if each part was kept brief.
The second sketch, thankfully lighter and less tedious, was about voodoo and body-switching. This premise has been done to death in Hollywood and is fast approaching its “used by” date in Malaysian theatre (remember Spilt Gravy on Rice?). However, Nell Ng and Ernest saved this little ditty with their great comic timing.
Nell was definitely in her element, playing the bossy, shrieking mother trying to get some R.E.S.P.E.C.T from her self-absorbed husband and daughter. In comes Earnest, playing the witch next door who offered to swap bodies with Nell. Earnest’s ‘tranny’ turn as a female mystic was quite enjoyable as he made no pretence of acting like a ‘real’ woman. He did a good job tickling the audience with his ‘man acting like a woman acting like another woman’ stint. The only spanner in the works came in the form of a very grating, relentlessly screechy daughter played by Eli, and a sadly under-directed, under-utilised Patrick Teoh as the husband.
Nevertheless, there were scenes that felt a little déjà vu and made me howl with laughter. Mom also thoroughly enjoyed the sketch as she could relate to some of the dialogue. Especially when the witch says to Nell, “Nobody appreciates your work, they treat you like a doormat, bla bla bla…” I am sure my mom too wished she could have swapped bodies sometimes. She also commented on the more important things, like Nell’s prettiness and her very white skin.
The third sketch, however, found Patrick truly in his element as the king of poignant silences. Patrick is one of those rare performers, like Julia Roberts (my apologies, Patrick, if Julia is not your cup of tea), who remain very much themselves in each of the characters they play; but, with the right character, play it with such charisma and star power they transfix the audience in the moment.
The tale was of a father accompanying his son to the bus station as the son leaves to study abroad. It was a touching play made more compelling by Patrick’s performance, with strong support by Earnest, who shows much promise, as the son. The sketch has just the right amount of humour and gravitas to tug at the audiences’ heart strings. My mom, for once, was silent. The combination of the script (based on the work of a contemporary writer in China, I hear), the direction and the experience of the actors, made this sketch a winner for me. I won’t mind watching an extended sequel with the same two characters, played by these same two actors.
The fourth sketch was quite an amusing little parable about filial piety. A 70-year-old son, played by Patrick Teoh, is unwilling to let his 100-year-old parents suffer the indignity and disempowerment of old age. He tricks them into believing they are younger than they really are by pretending himself to be younger and needier. Patrick’s role did not seem to be an emotionally challenging one, but still, he played it with ease. Nell delighted the audience again with her turn as the aging mother while Earnest was admirably supporting as the aging father. The sketch was short and sweet, and ended the play on a lighter mood. Both my mom and I appreciated that.
Overall, We are Family managed to entertain. I thank my lucky stars that it was not followed by a lecture of how I should be a more filial daughter. This reviewer would have been too wrecked with guilt to even write anything.
On a more serious note: if the director and the producer hope to elevate this production, they should look more closely into the technical aspects. Many of sketches were let down by uninspired lighting, set and sound design. The lighting designer failed to use the equipment and the lighting rig to its full potential in order to reveal the different moods within the different sketches.
The same can be said of the set, which verged on boring. It smacked of either plain laziness or inexperience on the part of the designer. White wall as a back drop would be acceptable if there were more imaginative usage of set dressings. But sadly, that was not the case. The set also hindered scene changes which lasted for more than 4 minutes in one instance. In theatre, unless the scene changes are miraculous, boredom will set in and the actors have to work that much harder to re-establish the audience’s good energy.
As for the sound design, I suffered from a mild bout of lactose intolerance over the amount of cheesy sounds I had to digest in those 90 minutes. They were predictable and showed a lack of thought.
Theatre is an experience, and sound, lighting and set are all important elements that contribute greatly to that experience. For directors to concentrate just on the actors is a huge disservice to the play, the actors, the playwright and the crew who have put in a lot of hard work to make the play a success.
I have no doubt of the talent in Need Entertainment. I just hope they will constantly push their own boundaries and get out of their comfort zone to produce more ‘finished’ products. It makes a difference to people like me who love theatre, and people like my mom, who demands quality time with everything she engages in. By the way, Nell, my mom needs to know: What’s the secret to your beautiful skin?
Lee Jia Ping, director of Tabs Creative Projects, has worked as production manager and stage manager in local productions and did a stint at Cambridge, learning theatre management.
First Published: 20.05.2005 on Kakiseni