Review: Dramafest 2013
By Jeremy Khoo and Austin Zheng (14A01B)
Hour after hour after hour of rehearsal, day after day of sleepless nights, and weeks of sheer hard work will culminate in a short 25-minute play. Over two performances, the blood, toil, sweat and tears of all involved will come to fruition in what promises to be a spectacular five-play series.
So, naturally, we greet the plays with a healthy dose of cynicism.
It is 7.30 p.m. on Friday night, and the seats are almost completely sold out, with entire rows occupied by classes and OGs. The audience is abuzz with chatter as orchestral music reverberates through the PAC. Each year, Dramafest is one of the most eagerly anticipated house events. All participants invest prodigious amounts of time and energy in rehearsing and refining their performances.
The day before Dramafest, the PAC and the classrooms above are bustling with activity as all five Houses put the finishing touches on their preparations for the full dress rehearsal. The atmosphere of each room differs with their occupant Houses, ranging from BW’s joviality to HH’s tension to BB’s exhaustion.
Many of the actors and costume crewmembers were engrossed in applying their makeup when we stopped by. The costumes were top-notch, notably BW’s clown-like, colourful costumes and makeup, and MT’s imposing gold- and silver- painted apparitions.
Cast and crew members alike half-smile as they describe just how much time and effort they put in. They have invested at least seven hours every weekday over the course of three weeks, usually ending their preparations at 10 or 11 each night. The intensity of Dramafest is stunning, and we cannot but respect the cast and crew members for their dedication. Some participants handle their considerable workload by making compromises on which pieces of work get done, asking for extensions, adjusting their sleep cycles to do some work before going to school, and/or make use of lecture/tutorial time to catch up. Others just give up on schoolwork for a while.
We attend the Friday performance, which, in a break with tradition, happens to be judging night. How does each play fare? Read on to find out!
A few brief words before we begin.
Although each play was written independently, dystopia was a common leitmotif this year, spanning four of the five plays. It is interesting to consider these four different treatments of dystopia in terms of how original their approaches were. Better plays brought fresh insight to the idea of dystopia while others merely borrowed from the existing cultural consciousness — among these latter plays, elements of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as well as more contemporary works like Scott Westerfield’s Uglies series, are evident.
Without further ado:
Therapy features three terminally ill women at a group therapy session with their doctor. The audience is shown how their illnesses have affected their lives — the careerist Claire loses her promotion, loyal wife Joan grows apart from her husband, and Rachel struggles with how to explain her imminent demise to her young children. As the tension rises, they begin to lash out at each other. Then, the arrival of another terminal patient – the Kid – begins to change their minds. Rachel bonds with the child and begins to accept her fate and think about how to talk to her children. Joan picks up the phone and finds that her husband has not in fact abandoned her. With the encouragement of Rachel and Joan, Claire comes out of denial and finally begins to face death with equanimity as the curtains come down.
Therapy is polished, elegant and astutely directed. Well-written dialogue makes the script coherent and cohesive. It never degenerates into hysterics, instead emphasizing the psychological dimensions of the play. It manages to deal with the anguish of imminent death without lapsing into melodrama, which is no mean feat given the thin line between a moving portrayal of grief and a farcical display of hysteria. This play is obviously unafraid to take on complex themes — in three end-of-life confessions, the audience is given an unflinching look at weakness before the spectre of death. Guilt, religion and madness all come under the spotlight in moving scenes of anguish.
Woon Xin Hui is the lynchpin of the play as the doctor with a plastic smile who sets the scene for the three terminally ill characters to deal with their problems. She is unflappable in the face of the unwillingness of her patients to open up, persuading, threatening and cajoling in turn — all the while with the semblance of a smile plastered on her face. Her presence both intensifies the already palpable tension and provides an avenue for its relief through laughter. All of this plays a critical role in convincing the audience that they are indeed observing a group therapy session, which allows us to take in the expository ‘sharing’ scenes in a spirit of quietude and sympathy. Hence, Xin Hui’s performance holds together a play that might have otherwise been fragmented by the alternating points of view, and her masterful performance qualifies her, in our view, as one of the best thespians of the night.
Ong Miao Ling, Emily Eng and Louise Marie Lee also deserve commendation for their portrayals of terminally ill patients Joan, Rachel and Claire. Despite the difficulty of portraying a character who is grieving — especially one that is grieving for herself — the three main characters rise to the occasion with a nuanced performance. Emily’s Rachel is particularly impressive, with an impassioned, distraught plea to what gods may be that underscores the desperation of the character. Our only complaint is that some slight variations in pauses before speeches and in their emphases would have brought their performance to another level.
The main cast is rounded off by the Kid, played by Lawrence Ora. Entering at the height of the argument between Joan, Rachel and Claire, he quickly asserts his presence on the stage. While the Kid, being implausibly sagacious for an eight-year-old, can be seen as more contrivance than character, Lawrence’s portrayal is masterful and renders the scene believable and indeed fairly poignant. Lawrence and Emily have an intense, touching chemistry in their interactions as a child and a mother, and while ultimately we have to acknowledge that the Kid is also a device of the plot, no great suspension of disbelief is required to believe that the conversation with the Kid does make things a lot clearer for Rachel.
In terms of staging, BB deserves some mention for their minimalist approach. Every piece of furniture on the stage has its purpose, an approach those Houses with more complex, static sets could learn from — the uncluttered stage helps to focus the audience’s attention on the plot and the characters. We also liked the way the lighting was done in the last scene, where Claire steps into the spotlight from an area in shadow as she begins to face reality.
This play is clearly not as ambitious as some others, but neither is it unambitious. Indeed, it is extraordinarily successful in doing what it sets out to do, especially compared with other plays which were more grandly conceived but were not as meticulously executed. The script is well crafted and the actors put in an understated performance that managed to do it justice. Although one of us is more impressed with this play than the other, we concur that it is a play that tackles solemn themes with maturity.
Morrison-Richardson: The Consequences of Feeling
The Consequences of Feeling takes place in a dystopian, futuristic society which deems emotions inefficient and surgically rids everybody of their feelings — a process known as Cardiac Demotification — the moment they turn 18. Alethea, who is nearly eighteen, begins to suspect that Demotification is not the beneficent surgery it is made out to be by society after she sees the effect it has on her friends Preston and Polly. Her suspicions are only reinforced by a chance encounter with an injured stranger, who instructs her not to let herself undergo Demotification. After attempting to reconnect with her Demotificated friend Polly by hugging her, Alethea is arrested for the display of emotion and forcibly brought to the surgery table, where she accidentally kills Polly as she escapes. Alethea meets and hugs another girl, advising her to beware of the Demotification process, as the play draws to a close, mirroring Alethea’s own earlier encounter with the stranger.
The plot pales into cliché remarkably quickly, drawing the lines of conflict by rehashing the story of idealistic rebellion against a ‘rational’ society that denounces emotion and surgically alters hearts in a process known as Cardiac Demotification to rid people of their emotions (we suppose that was intended metaphorically). All-too-familiar lines about the value of being an individual are dredged up from the land of cliché. The golden rule of drama — show, not tell — is abandoned. There is an attempt to lend the play verisimilitude by emulating Orwellian Newspeak, but the playwright fails to recognize that the key to Newspeak is euphemism — not mere synonymic replacement or loquaciousness. Some moments that were obviously intended to be serious are instead farcical, in particular the protagonist Alethea’s uncalled-for cry of “Who am I?” The play fails to grip or engage the audience, and soon its climax has passed and the curtains are falling. On the whole, the script exemplifies a jejune and unoriginal treatment of the subject matter.
The acting in a few scenes is particularly maladroit. Alethea’s halfhearted struggle against Demotification is obviously feigned. When Polly dies, Alethea’s shock at accidentally stabbing her friend is completely underwhelming — in fact, Alethea seemed more shocked at Preston’s unemotional response than at the killing itself. The sequence in which the audience is told about Demotification is gratuitously lengthy, and to make things worse, at one point every spoken phrase was accompanied by arbitrary and sometimes clumsy actions in a histrionically overacted sequence. Overall, the scenes seemed yoked together, giving the play a fragmented feel.
In terms of staging, this play clearly reflects a lack of polish. The acting is subpar and unconvincing — most egregiously, the propagandist schoolteacher spends the entire play speaking in an incomprehensible accent and mangles her lines on more than one occasion. Generally speaking, energy levels on stage were at a constant, unexciting ebb and actors had no physical presence. In particular, the directorial choice of allowing stagehands onstage to change scenes without dimming the lights is inexplicable.
The few bright spots are the intelligent use of lights and sounds — particularly the scene in which technical effects give the impression that the action is taking place heartbeat by heartbeat — and the scene in which Alethea attempts to hug Pauline, which shows Alethea’s vulnerability and awkwardness in dealing with her emotions, creating an atmosphere that is simultaneously touching and tense.
Ultimately, with an uninspired cast, a weak script and only well-executed technical direction to distinguish it, The Consequences of Feeling ranks as passable but eminently forgettable.
Hadley-Hullett: Whatcha Say
Whatcha Say features a disease that forces people to tell the truth and its effect on the introverted lawyer Bob’s life. The play starts with the disease compelling the usually silent Bob to speak up at a meeting and point out a discrepancy in a suspect’s testimony, earning himself a promotion. However, the disease also causes a rift in his relationship when it forces his honest opinions about his wife out of him. To make things worse, when Bob’s law firm presses a case against the government to make treating the disease mandatory for all, Bob fails to argue convincingly against the governor at the first hearing. Fortunately, a later conversation with his wife patches up their relationship and reveals that the disease does not in fact compel people to tell the truth, but whatever first comes to their mind. He then confidently overwhelms the blustering governor, who lets slip that he had intended to exploit the disease’s loophole. Despite his victory, Bob ultimately reflects that society is not truly better off without the disease during the final scene.
This play starts off promisingly, with the introduction montage telling us of a disease that makes everyone tell the truth, but quickly devolves into slapstick, lowest-common-denominator humour. This skit-comedy may have the audience roaring with laughter, but it accomplishes little else. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with low comedy, but it is another matter entirely when the entire play exists solely to exploit crude forms of humour for cheap laughs, as this one does. Boobs, armpit odour, bitchy mother in laws and do-I-look-fat-in-this-dress are all played for laughs at some point — nothing is too trite or too crass for this script. By the third scene of mass chaos on stage, the farce gets more than a little grating.
Unfortunately, the problems with this script go beyond that. The legal system in the world of this play is never explained, which is a major problem given that a crucial plot point revolves around it. To wit, the central conflict of the play involves one lawyer filing a ‘petition’ that has the extraordinary legal power of forcing the unwilling government to eradicate the disease, which is then ‘heard’ during a ‘public discourse’, where ‘the governor’ contests it — the mind boggles. We are told that the main character is cripplingly shy — something that is never actually apparent. The climax of the play, while not badly written, is still essentially two characters expositing and is not well crafted enough to hold the audience’s attention. Finally, the protagonist only triumphs because of a fortunate eleventh-hour discovery, which causes the antagonist to blurt out his devious plan. While in this instance the cliché is actually justified because the governor has the disease, the fact that it is an overused, unrealistic trope is undeniable.
Most damningly, there is no emotional or intellectual resonance at all in this play; beyond cheap laughs, the play rings hollow in this aspect, neither touching nor disturbing the audience, though it evidently attempts to do so. If anything, there is a ringing intellectual dissonance. The revelation of the true nature of the disease — making people say whatever comes to mind instead of what they truly think — undermines the protagonist’s final statement that things are not better without the disease.
The plot is mired in what Hitchcock termed ‘fridge logic’ — a serious logical inconsistency that is not immediately apparent but becomes obvious upon further thought. Once we find out that the disease doesn’t actually make people tell the truth, the plot begins to come apart at the seams. The disease doesn’t actually have any significant impact on society because people can still lie — it’s just that they will have to relearn the art of lying convincingly. No longer is there a clash between a society built on lies and another built on the truth; the old way of lying has merely been replaced with a new one. The effort to portray the conflict as the former when the plot depends upon the revelation of the latter thus falls flat on its face. We are forced to conclude that this play is Twelve Angry Men writ mediocre — with all of the words and arguments but none of the emotional pull or compelling plot.
The staging is choppy and largely unimaginative. With few exceptions, every article of clothing that appears onstage is black and every actor has some combination of a blazer, a shirt and long pants on. They are supposed to be lawyers, yes — but it is not just the colour but also the form of the sartorial choices that seem uninspired. Furthermore. there are far too many scene changes, which disrupt the already-lacking momentum of the production. We did, however, like their idea of throwing a banner back and forth over the backdrop in order to change scenes.
The inspired acting is the only thing that brings a measure of quality to the production. Lee Chin Wee’s performance as the protagonist Bob is this play’s saving grace. He gives a realistic portrayal of his character, trying to come across as lacking in confidence, stressed, awkward and tense. The supporting characters are scripted in a flat and hollow manner, but for what they have to work with, the actors portray their characters as best they can.
Unfortunately, even the skill of the actors fails to rescue this production. They do a good job, but ultimately they are unable to escape the mediocre scripting and directing that ties them down. There is simply no depth to any of the inhabitants of the world of this play, and hence no room for the audience to identify with the characters and be involved in the play. The premise was original and the actors clearly dedicated, but the production suffered for its flawed realization on paper, and so we have what is at best a queerly average play.
Ebinabation is set in a futuristic dystopia where people’s lives are dictated from birth. The play starts with the Principal implanting embryos into boxes, which become fully-fledged children overnight. There are four children in total — Jill, Steve, Mary and Ebinabation (who is swiftly renamed Tom by the Principal). Jill, Steve and Mary are assigned random personalities, but Ebinabation remains true to his quirky nature. He shows his rebellious nature by piping up inappropriately, meddling with things or attempting to sneak off. One night, Ebinabation leaves his room and is shocked to discover an entire cupboard of fetuses. The Principal arrives and inform him that Ebinabations are unique beings that have the power to control the entire breeding system, with only one Ebinabation in each era. Refusing to cede control, she then reprograms Ebinabation, turning him into a mindless Tom in the last scene of the play.
BW’s play has little that is new or refreshing to offer, instead reviving tired clichés from dystopic science-fiction stories and elsewhere. In particular, the idea of children being born in laboratories, assigned traits and then occupations to maximize their utility, central to the world and plot of this play, is taken nearly wholesale from Brave New World. The Principal is a typical villain, right down to the Cruella-esque dressing and manner, while titular character Ebinabation is scripted as little more than a curious child. The attempts at humour are largely hit-and-miss; some lines draw uproarious laughter from the crowd while other less punchy lines fall flat. Toward the later part of the play, these begin to founder as the lines become less and less funny, making certain scenes grating and irritating to sit through.
The central problem with this play is focus. The audience’s attention is continually diverted to things of at best peripheral importance, leaving the key thematic concern of identity neglected and undeveloped. There is a remarkable amount of time devoted to prancing about the stage, which does nothing for the play besides drawing a few laughs. Both the protagonist and antagonist are scripted into oddly passive roles that are insufficient to develop the conflict to any significant extent. In stereotypically villainous fashion, the Principal actually gives a rambling, melodramatic explication of her motives at the climax of the play.
Lim Wei Khai’s Ebinabation is a lively, curious character that is convincing as a child, but the rest of the cast disappoints with an overacted performance. In particular, Lim Yi Yong’s awkward accent distracts from his delivery in his performance as Steve, blunting the impact of some of his more jocose lines. Unfortunately, Ebinabation gets far too little stage time — while several bits of physical theatre were genuinely enjoyable, most of the time Wei Khai does not get enough space or energy to assert his character’s presence. Hence, his portrayal of Ebinabation’s adventurous and enthusiastic nature is dulled by the way in which the play was put together, and the result is that we see Ebinabation going along with the flow of the play rather than controlling it.
While the first two-thirds of the play are evidently meant to subtly disturb the audience through a portrayal of the flashy but hollow nature of the supporting characters, that is accomplished at the expense of greater clarity about the important questions the playwrights evidently wanted to raise, and the play as a whole thus appeared confused and uncertain. After the curtains have closed, the question that really bears asking is, “What was the point of all that?”, and Ebinabation provides no clear answer.
However, BW does manage to distinguish itself in terms of the staging of Ebinabation. Their outrageous, vivid costumes bring colour to the stage, while the four black boxes that are used as props made a stark contrast with the cast’s costumes, perhaps reflecting that for all their larger-than-life personalities, the supporting characters are ultimately artificially constructed entities. The use of lights and sound was also good, successfully heightening the audience’s shock in certain scenes.
This play is very ambitious in its scope and attempts to raise many thought-provoking questions, but it doesn’t quite manage to do itself justice. A mediocre script, uneven acting and unfocused direction render Ebinabation very much a work in progress. This play is not exactly bad, but there is a lingering sense that it could have been much better.
Unfinished follows siblings Chris and Lisa as they break into the Poet’s house, seeking to discover the truth behind the Poet and disprove his alleged causal relation to the Monday Mass Meetings. As supernatural apparitions invisible to the duo recite ominous verses, the siblings reveal that the Poet was a deceased critic of their fear-stricken, superstitious society through their quarrel. After a series of frightening and inexplicable events, Lisa is scared into fleeing the house. Chris remains behind and meets the ghost of the Poet, who gives him the task of completing his last, unfinished poem. However, tipped off by Lisa’s flight from the house, policemen enter and arrest Chris for his seditious acts. As the head detective reaffirms a common societal commitment to the Monday Mass Meetings, the portrait of the Poet on the wall falls, revealing a bloody inscription of the word ‘UNFINISHED’.
MT’s Unfinished is an unprecedented foray into a genre unexplored in at least a decade of Dramafests — horror. As director Shrey Bhargava is an experienced and highly talented member of Raffles Players, and a veteran of many Dramafests — both here and on the Y1-4 side of the school — this play is highly anticipated. He does not fail to live up to expectations, avoiding the pitfalls of cheap, numbing terror that characterizes B-grade horror movies. Instead, Unfinished relies on suspense instead of visceral imagery to keep the audience engaged and drive the plot forward.
The idea of a moving three-person ensemble invisible to the main characters is perhaps this script’s finest offering. Their lines are written entirely in verse, an elegant and poetic idea unfortunately let down slightly by writing of uneven quality. As a result, not all their lines are completely comprehensible, but then they need not be; the ensemble are there not to make a point, but to help to heighten the atmosphere. The set complements them beautifully — a professionally designed Gothic backdrop is melded with dilapidated furniture to create just the menacing atmosphere that is called for. As the play proceeds, our marvel at the ingenuity of the crew only increases — they manage to make cupboards open, rocking chairs sway and picture frames drop without any apparent cause, and somehow manage to sneak an actor into a cupboard previously shown to be empty without anyone noticing. The lights were well used and created an ominous, shadowy effect; however, the sound was at times too loud, occasionally drowning out the actors.
The acting of the main characters is brilliant, with Ejaz Latiff and Ruthanne Soh’s brother-sister duo as well as Yash Nair’s gold-covered giant of a statue-apparition having excellent physical and vocal presence. Ejaz, RI’s first Drama DSA student in more than a decade, is exceptional in his role, portraying with conviction protagonist Chris’ attempt to stand firm against his fear of the unknown. Unfortunately, most of the supporting characters are not quite as accomplished. The silver statue-apparitions move confidently about the stage but are not clearly audible at certain points, while the suited detectives move awkwardly and have inadequate stage presence. Indeed, the detectives fail to be convincingly menacing in their roles, instead coming across as playground bullies. Nevertheless, the overall result is gripping, sending shivers down our spines and keeping us on the edge of our seats.
The weakest point of the play is during the penultimate scene, when the authorities arrive to arrest Chris for breaking curfew after the poet has been dragged away by the apparitions. The scene contains too much exposition and drags on for too long, and after a certain point the tension dissipates and some of the play’s energy is lost. All of this detracts from the intended effect of making Chris’ arrest mirror the poet’s removal from the stage. It would have been significantly better if the scene was shortened.
Unfinished does manage to rise above mere emotional manipulation to convey a deeper message. The depiction of society as even more horrific and depraved than the supernatural itself provides a deeper, intellectual dimension to the play, and underlines the point that horror can also be used to criticise society and human nature. We are ultimately disgusted by the corrupt police and of the fear-stricken, superstitious society, and dread the society the poet’s ghost is raging against more than the ghost itself. Chris’ insistence on staying in the haunted house to seek out the truth becomes an understandable and sympathetic cause.
However, prior to the penultimate scene, the entirety of our knowledge about the larger society and Chris’ motives comes from the dialogue between Chris and Lisa. It is to the script’s credit that it does not resort to lengthy exposition to convey information to the audience, but at the same time our understanding of the society Chris and Lisa live in is incomplete. We can’t quite grasp why Chris is so insistent in his quest despite his obvious fear until the denouement of the play, and the play would have been even better had Chris’ motivations been clearer.
Ultimately, Unfinished is an outstanding play. Its weaknesses do not detract severely from the overall quality of the production, and in terms of pushing the envelope Unfinished also throws down the gauntlet for experiments with less conventional genres in future Dramafests. It will be interesting to see where it stands in comparison with the 2012 Raffles Players’ Nightfall production, featuring dramatic adaptations of four of Edgar Allen Poe’s works, which is due to start showing next week.
Best Actor: EJAZ LATIFF as CHRIS in UNFINISHED
Best Actress: RAE TEO as JILL in EBINABATION
Best Cast: BAYLEY-WADDLE for EBINABATION
Best Director: SHREY BHARGAVA for UNFINISHED
Best Script: HADLEY-HULLET for WHATCHA SAY
Best Set: MOOR-TARBET for UNFINISHED
Best Play: BAYLEY-WADDLE for EBINABATION
By the time the results came in on Saturday night, we had already written the large part of our reviews. As you will probably have realised, our opinions differ from the judges’ in several ways. While the awards that Unfinished received were no surprise to us, we were fairly surprised that the judges named Whatcha Say the production with the best script and that Ebinabation received quite a few awards while Therapy was snubbed. Just as the people who believed Lincoln should have beaten Argo at the Oscars will not have changed their mind despite the latter’s victory, we stand by our opinions.
Student theatre is often derided as immature, unprofessional and in general not worth watching, especially when one has to pay for the privilege. We would beg to differ: many a Dramafest production has seen talented, passionate and dedicated individuals come together to put on remarkable plays. While there were plays that lived up to the lofty tradition of dramatic excellence within the Institution and plays that fell short of it, Dramafest has ultimately proved time and again that student theatre can be quality theatre.
That being said, we are aware of the effort put in by the production team of every house, and we are also proud to acknowledge the dedication required to see a production through from start to finish. We are certain that the most valuable part of each Dramafest participant’s experience was not who won or lost, but the late nights, exhausting hours and friendships formed and strengthened over the course of the past three weeks.
Shrey supplies a fitting quote for us to conclude with: “For me, it’s not about the competition. I just want to create a great play… I’ve been participating in Dramafest for four years, but this time, it’s special because this is the first time we’re trying out a new genre.”
“As long as there are screams in the crowd, I’m happy!”
Photographs courtesy of Michael Leong from Raffles Photography.
We welcome all opinions, dissenting or otherwise, and would like to invite our readers to criticise the plays we commended, defend those we did not, or simply add on to our article. We may not agree with all comments, or have time to respond to them, but we will certainly read them with interest.
CORRECTION: We stated that Ejaz Latiff is RI’s “first Drama DSA student in more than a decade”. This is inaccurate. He appealed into RI for Drama; he did not get in through Direct School Admission.