This is the fourth production of TIOBE i’ve been to. The first being the one played out in my head (many, many times in the course of JC where we did it for Lit), the second on YouTube that was positively charming but seems to have been taken down – otherwise it’s the 1986 version can’t seem to remember. The third one staged by Raffles Players.
There really isn’t a basis for comparison though, all are played out so differently. I’d say the distinguishing feature of Wild Rice’s is the focus on physical comedy and farce. Wilde’s script is by itself a comedy of errors and the dialogue is enough to ensure hilarity even staged with complete seriousness (yes a big fan), but Wild Rice’s choice to go all the way funny didn’t detract from the clever lines (attributing this to great actors).
***SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON***
To get the grouses out of the way first, my main and pretty severe issue with the production is that THE LIGHTS. ARE. BLINDING. I swear by the end of the play my eyes were SMARTING. When the lights first came on i thought wow is this is the end of life as always depicted. And they STAYED. ON. A cursory glance at the audience confirmed my suspicion because this was the only performance in Drama Centre i’ve been able to see everyone’s faces with clarity. After awhile your eyes adjust to it, and also you are distracted by the play itself, so it get better. But towards the end the strain does come back and haunt you – distracting me from the play. A pity too.
My second issue with it is the dynamics between Jack and Gwendolyn (Daniel York and Chua En Lai respectively). So the first thing you need to know about this staging is that it’s played by an all-male cast, and unabashedly so. I liked that they made the artistic decision of not cross-dressing or playing into the feminine role. Now for this semester my modules have uncannily and collectively decided to explore gender roles – its performativity and it being a social construct. That i was uncomfortable with the Jack/Gwen scene (something just didn’t sit well with me), made me keenly aware of how i myself wasn’t autonomous from socially constructed notions of gender (that I couldn’t accept a male playing a female without ACTING female).
But then AHA came Algernon and Cecily (Brendon Fernandez and Gavin Yap), and their interaction felt to me completely organic and even quite pleasing. I noted that Gavin Yap also played Cecily without regards of having to be ‘female’. The smart suits, the sometimes boyish actions that arise straight out of his natural being, the deep voice where he wanted. And then came the Cecily/Gwen scene which was a delight as well. It brought out all the nuances of the characters’ traits and motivations, wholly transcending gender (without attempts to resist it or conform to). So i happily concluded that it was just poor chemistry between Daniel York and Chua En Lai (AND NOT MY EXPECTATIONS OF GENDER NORMS YAY) – which was evident when i consciously took notice of proxemics and their onstage synergy (there was little) when the focus wasn’t on them. Both, by themselves and with others, were strong actors though. Maybe it’s just one of those things that just aren’t there and you just have to deal with. Although i felt that given the entire cast’s ability and flexibility, it would have easily been fixed with some changes in casting.
The set was alright, the crisp, sleek, block colors starkly contrasting – usually black and white. But what I really, really loved, just two seconds into the play: THE FLOOR PATTERN? Dat optical illusion black and white checkered space… just wow? I don’t even know why I like it so much but it gave the entire place a distorted, farcical, Alice-in-Wonderland kind of thing going that played so nicely with the production’s approach to Importance.
Another thing to be applauded – the strength of the cast as a whole. Although this is kind of a given, it’s always nice to not be disappointed at all. Mind-blowing comic timing, especially impressive when executed in a group. Each cast member idiosyncratic and obviously talented – each with admirable stage presence, but without clashing with others. The director was right in recognizing the cohesive competence of the cast in physical humor. This was the first production of Importance i’ve seen that depended on action as much as words for the humor. They managed to not only balance this action/dialogue but had both complement each other masterfully. Impressed.
The audience were good on my night too, appropriate and appreciative, tentative but not ungenerous with their responses. I myself felt a little of that hesitation – there were just so many clever lines that you really don’t know when and how to distribute your laughter. It was a calculated performance by the audience as much as by the cast, really. Some bits were culturally or historically specific and maybe only we (having analyzed the text half to death) got the reference – with smatterings of almost-laughters across the stage. Where it was obviously ironic the laughter was robust and genuine, though, so no complaints there. Besides, to be fair, it isn’t practical – when watching a Wilde - to laugh at every bit of irony or humor (THEY IS EVERYWHERE).
The audience were especially in love with Chasuble and Prism (Lim Kay Siu and Hossan Leong) and oh yes did they play in well. It was positively endearing. But then again Chasuble and Prism as characters are such utter silly stocks that it’s more difficult than easy to make them unlovable/unmockable. I do love their portrayal though – they were milder than another cast would have been and that added a very charming dimension to the two.
Special mention though, to Ivan Heng (although expected). IMPECCABLE timing, INSANE physicality. His physical control, seriously though, made the theatre geek in me drool in all shades of jealousy and admiration.
All in all, I’d say: WATCH. Both because it’s a Wilde, and because it’s a good production on Wilde, which is not easy for a local cast but they pulled it off and well. Also because it’s a local play and we should all support good local they deserve all of it.