On Strawberries and Death: Dramafeste 2015

by Karen Cuison (16A01D), Ching Ann Hui (15S03A), Michelle Zhu (15A01B)
Photos by Vanessa Gan (15S06C) and Nigel Gomes (15S06R)

Dramafeste 2015 was, for many, two weeks of rehearsals and set painting late into the night that eventually came together on the 25th and 26th of February. The popularity of the event was undiminished this year, with tickets for the Thursday show selling out rapidly, and many theatregoers arriving early at the PAC foyer to get the best seats.

Strawberry
Moor-Tarbet

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Synopsis:

Bernie seems okay, but really, he isn’t. His waking hours are spent arguing with Helen, his ex-wife, over what might have been, while his dreams are preoccupied with Carol, his absent daughter. He has not been able to find closure over an initially unidentified incident, later skillfully and subtly revealed as Bernie’s failure to buy Carol a Strawberry ice-cream cone prompting her to cross the road – only to be tragically killed by a speeding car.

‘And the worst part is, in front of everyone, you have to be okay… well I… try to be.’ -Bernie

Strawberry will be remembered for its poignance with which it addressed mental anguish. From the lone handheld spotlight Bernie used in both his entrance and exit to highlight his desolation, to the building blocks that formed a house that reinforced Bernie’s lack of a loving home, MT’s play featured various little touches that added atmosphere and depth to the conflicts portrayed. A motif that worked particularly well in Strawberry was Bernie’s beginning monologue. Its repetitions in the middle and at the end of the play sent chills up the spines of many.

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MT’s lineup of actors worked well with each other, clinching a deserved Best Cast award. As Bernie, whether Rishi Vadrevu was oscillating between fatherly warmth and fierce wrath,or delivering an impassioned monologue by the light of his handheld spotlight, he carried the play with gusto. Ericka Mantaring portrayed a realistic Carol, while Lam Wei Yi as ex-wife Helen surfaced love and hurt sensitively, sometimes at the same time. Last but not least, the ensemble (Maisarah, Nabilah and Sreshya) that acted as both conscience and mocking commentary, credibly translated the various aspects of Bernie’s turmoil from self to stage, enriching and enhancing Strawberry.

MT’s ambitions, however, were not wholly realized. With a full set, fully utilized stage, and diverse cast, it was easy for some things to be drowned out by others. Nonetheless, the effort put in by the scriptwriters and directors is commendable. As an unnamed audience member put it, Strawberry‘s strength lay in ‘how it was emotional, and how it was something we could all relate to.’

Two Berries, a Cherry and a Boy: The Life and Death of a Traffic Light
Morrison-Richardson

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Synopsis:

Strawberry falls in love with Blueberry, who falls in love with lovable girl-next-door Cherry, who falls in love with easy-going goof Mark. Strawberry and Blueberry share a literary streak. While Blueberry angstily compares his unrequited love for Cherry to a pedestrian’s inability to love a traffic light, Strawberry desperately tries to attract his attention by rewriting his stories. Eventually, Blueberry realizes the futility of his pursuit. At the same time, he is touched by Strawberry’s affectations, and accepts them. He makes a final request – to break the glass that divides their world and Cherry’s. The play ends with Mark giving Cherry two goldfish to replace her deceased ones, Blueberry and Strawberry.

“What mountain did Albert Einstein climb? Mount Cleverest!” -Mark

Strawberry (played by Shannon Phuah) and Blueberry (played by Vasu Namdeo) made for a compelling lead couple. The Best Actress and Actor respectively displayed remarkable and consistent chemistry.

MR’s production was defined by its simplicity. This was reflected most clearly in its bare set. It was visually unique, and facilitated the smooth movement of actors. At the same time, it made full use of the stage without distracting from the actors. On top of it all, the set even retained an element of surprise in the triangular blocks, which were overturned in the closing scene to make a path for Cherry and Mark to walk to each other.

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Two Berries, a Cherry and a Boy was defined not by a standout moment, but by the unity and smooth flow at every moment. There did not seem to be a key moment per se in this play – the central story that made absolutely no sense at the beginning, but makes the audience go ‘ohhhh’ once revealed. As the plot unravelled, the connections of some ideas nebulous to some audience members. Nonetheless, with the help of the traffic light and goldfish motifs, the concept of loving from a distance was articulated uniquely and well. Many enjoyed the numerous traffic light puns woven skillfully into the play that brought many light moments into an otherwise intense play, whether it was “he felt that that all the light had gone out of his life”, or “he thought that had been sending very clear signals”. The ending scene too was hauntingly beautiful – prisms toppling in succession just to let Cherry and Mark walk on to meet each other. Unfortunately, Blueberry did not have have that fortune.

This production was not without its critics – one audience member remarked ‘it was slightly anti-climatic, while other audience members finding the main character’s exchanges too ‘shouty’. Even then, MR went on to sweep the Best Play, Best Script, Best Actress and Best Actor awards. As a first-time lead actress, Shannon shared that the greatest challenge for her was “showing depth and variety to (her) emotional responses”. This was especially since the play “relied heavily on emotion to carry the plot, but it escalated so quickly that it was difficult at times to catch on. It took lots of re-looking at and unpacking the lines to fine tune the level of energy.”

Ultimately, MR’s production stood out for its professionalism. As judge Eugenia Tang shared with us after the event, each different play had really good moments but MR’s victory was because it was the only play out of the five that the judges could see as being successful in a professional theatre setting, whilst the rest were still distinctly distinguishable as student productions.

Yesterday was Saturday
Buckle-Buckley

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Synopsis:

Auntie Ling hosts a group of childhood friends for what seems like a conventionally cheerful childhood-friend get-together. However, it is soon revealed that these old friends have convened to break the bad news of John’s death to Auntie Ling, his mentally impaired mother. Auntie Ling blames his ex-girlfriend, Julia, for the death, refusing to believe that her son drunkenly grabbed the steering wheel from her as he veered towards his own death. Amidst John’s tragedy and the rekindling and rejection of an old flame, Auntie Ling and friends learn their own lessons about loss.

“You think it’s really made in Germany meh? China la! Everything is made in China!”  – Auntie Ling

Yesterday was Saturday began with a sprightly Auntie Ling (played by Tan Ai) excitedly inviting everyone to her home. As the stage filled up with characters, conflicts including the pain of having to break the news of death to Auntie Ling, became correspondingly clearer. Tan Ai, in particular, fleshed out Auntie Ling’s character memorably and effectively, whether she was being a welcoming host or a hysterical, devastated mother. Strengthening the production were little hints of symbolism planted thoughtfully throughout the set and play itself. These included rows of beer bottles, and a set of curtains – John’s favourite childhood hiding place – that were left open, and drawn only at the play’s close.

In trying to tie the diverse cast and set together, the play sometimes lost sight of its main plot and message. This proved to be a stumbling block, especially when the play tended towards rambling and somewhat blunt dialogue. In particular, there were mixed opinions about the side plot of Madeline (Jesslyn) and Darryl’s (Sarthal) love story – while some found that it strengthened the theme of loss and letting go, others felt that it made the stage feel crowded and detracted from the main plot. Moreover, the ending seemed abrupt and convenient, and gave off the feeling of a melodramatic Korean soap.

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However, to the play’s credit, these did not detract from the play’s promising concept, and its most memorable moments. One such moment was the near the end of the play, where bathed in dreamy blue stage lights, Julia (played by Eunice Png) delivered a heart-rending monologue about John (Daniel). John entered in a white tuxedo and both interacted with the set, seemingly thinking of each other but never making eye contact. The symbols used throughout the play were also useful in bringing out the message, in particular the pocket watches bought in the friends’ youth. This writer was particularly impressed by the subtle change of the roses in the wine bottles from white at the beginning to red at the end.

All in all, Buckle-Buckley put up a play that was conceptually impressive and heart-wrenching in its best moments. Though the execution could certainly have been improved, it was nevertheless an entertaining play that ambitiously tackled such universal issues of loss and letting go of the past.

Kampong Recipes
Hadley-Hullett

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Synopsis:

It takes a kampong to find a missing child. Or class monitor. Mabel and Ian are determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, all the while balancing school and battling iron-laden parental grips. They find out that there is more than meets the eye to  witch’s signature delicacy, banzhang (Chinese for class monitor, and similar in sound to Bak Zhang, the chinese delicacy it represents ).

“But why are we still scared?”

We will admit – we were skeptical. Kampong Recipes initially reminded us a lot more of a cooking show on Channel 5, than the fascinating play with, in the words of the judges ‘two narratives – one of a story of murder on the surface, but another of cannibalising the children in conservative Asian society’ that wound up wowing us. The aesthetic of Kampong Recipes was a dream from start to finish. The costumes of the cast was authentically kampong and especially for the witch (Caitlin O’Hara), who was clad in an elaborate red Peranakan outfit, with matching red eyeshadow to boot. Kampong Recipes’s look was buoyed by its sets. Simple as they were, the colourful stage greatly enhanced the storybook-like setting of the kampong, believably and tastefully. At one point, even two seemingly insignificant potted plants placed beside a painting of a kampong somehow bridged the gaps between the flatness of the painting and the physicality of the actors, while demarcating the homes of Mabel (Celine Ng) and Ian (Mohammad Sufyan). The best component was definitely the box ,which served as Auntie’s hiding spot, with vines menacingly hanging. It is remarkable how Kampong Recipes’s sets found sweet spots between tastefulness and tackiness, and minimalism and maximalism, while never sacrificing functionality. It was therefore not surprising when HH won the Best Sets.

Most would agree that the most impactful scene would be the climactic one when Mabel and Ian are cowering in the jungle with witch standing over them and the light turned green, casting a menacing figure of the (otherwise slightly comic) Auntie, reminiscent of the famous scene in “Wicked” when Elphaba defies gravity.

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The unabashed hilarity of Kampong Recipes quite possibly made it the most light-hearted and easily digested play of the Feste. Arguably, it was the most ‘complete’ play – there was no unexpected, abrupt change of events, no sudden surprises. From dark, dark humour that made ban zhang (‘class monitor’ in Chinese) sound like a Chinese delicacy (hence hinting at cannibalism), to Mabel’s and Ian’s adorable friendship, Kampong Humour’s jibe-filled, script was deliciously subtle. The play was also conceptually impressive – what stood out in particular was how it effortlessly managed to bring out the parallels between a nameless “monster” in the jungle and the arguably overly harsh ways of the typical “Asian parent”.

The stagehands too did a wonderful job – with the judges even commenting ‘that was the best stagehanding (they) have ever witnessed’. The play involved a lot of set changes, making the stagehands especially important for the success of HH. HH stagehand Alex Tan shares his experience in practicing moving the bulky box set: “At first we took about 15 seconds for each scene change, which satisfied our director Celeste. But one of our crew members Jia Cheng refused to stop practising until we hit below 10 seconds!” What drove the crew to continue practicing despite rehearsals being held late into the night was the energy that persisted, heartening them despite the tight schedules.

While MR and BW’s plays were outstanding because of their simplicity, HH’s play impressed the audience because of its uncanny ability to fit so many characters on the stage without coming across as being too crowded, whether in terms of each character’s function in the plot or staging. The play was certainly not perfect, but multiple elements of the play that stood out individually managed to come together to produce a play that was both visually and conceptually stunning.

The Adventures of Zachary and Fiona
Bayley-Waddle

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Synopsis:

Zachary’s world is turned upside down when his elder sister, Fiona, is diagnosed with cancer. As her cancer progresses, sibling roles are reversed: instead of Fiona looking after Zachary, Zachary has to look after Fiona. Both siblings display selflessness and love in the face of Fiona’s impending death.

‘I’m gonna explode!’ – Fiona

The first thing that struck most audience members about The Adventures of Zachary and Fiona was its minimalism – and in turn, the play’s ability to convey a lot with a little. Adventures only had two actors – Zachary (played by Abdul Lateef) and Fiona (played by Cai Hai Yun). Yet, it seemed that two actors was all that was needed for Bayley-Waddle to put up a performance that was captivating. Indeed, despite being 17, the actors were able to realistically bring out the childlike demeanour of their characters – optimistic, yet cautiously realistic – to accurately capture the hurt, fear and joy colouring the journey of a child cancer patient.

The scene where Zachary pretended to be a doctor finding all sorts of treatment for Fiona stood out. The familiar childhood game of playing doctor is given new meaning in this context, showing not only the youthful trust between the siblings, but also how children deal with cancer – in the only way they know, by turning it into a game. This scene was one of many where BW managed to combine emotional intensity and significance with comic relief. Another scene that stood out was the shadow scene, where Fiona attempted to live out her dream of being a pilot in the face of her problems – symbolised by crashing waves always seem larger than what she can manage. The shadow play had many audience members gushing for its beauty and unexpectedness, as well as for how it highlighted the delicate, unpredictable and constantly changing nature of the siblings’ journey with Fiona’s cancer.

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BW’s play was distinguished by its subtlety. Notably, immediately after Zachary finished shouting about Fiona not waking up, all lights went down except for a spot on his sister’s fragile breathing form. BW’s production was different because its force came less from what it presented and more from the reactions it triggered in the audience, beautifully exposing the struggles that childhood cancer patients and their families face. While some in the audience found the play too ambitious, it was nevertheless successful in its attempt to address such a serious issue. The only possible downside to Adventures was the ending, which came across as anti-climactic after the skillful execution of the rest of the play. Perhaps the scriptwriters and directors were trying to tell us that the ending in this case does not matter as much, but that was not true for the audience, who were, after all watching for the ending.

BW winning Best Direction came as no surprise given the complexity of directing this deceptively simple. Houses like  BB and HH easily filled the stage with their numerous characters. Although BW did not have the luxury of a sizeable cast, Zachary and Fiona left deep impressions with their stage presence. The coordination of the shadow show was another challenge the directors had to overcome, and overcomed flawlessly.

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As per tradition, the Raffles Players EXCO put up a spoof that linked all the plays together just before the results release. Consisting of Rafi Kamsani, Rachel Koh, Brian Yen, Joel Seow, Darshini Ravichandran and Katrina Jacinto, this year’s players EXCO linked notable lines together from the various plays to form a hilarious spoof, even borrowing parts of the characters’ costumes – BW’s pilot hats, HH’s peranakan outfit, drawing uproarious laughter from the audience and ending the night on a great note.

Dramafeste 2015 was an impressive production for all five houses, especially given the tight timeline that they had to work with. Literature teacher and Players teacher I/C Mr Ian Tan noted that the common thread that linked the houses’ plays this year was the theme of coping – with loss, with love, or with extenuating circumstances. Many in the audience marvelled at the amount of work that went on behind the scenes for every play, and we at Raffles Press echo the sentiment. the sheer amount of time and energy participants have put in to the show is perhaps the most remarkable part of a very entertaining production. We’d like to salute the passion and energy each house went into Dramafeste with, which eventually culminated in a thrilling night for all of us in the audience.

Results

Best script: Two Berries, a Cherry and a Boy (MR)
Best sets: Kampong Recipes (HH)
Best cast: Strawberry (MT)
Best actor: Vasu Namdeo as Blueberry (MR)
Best actress: Shannon Phuah as Strawberry (MR)
Best direction: The Adventures of Zachary and Fiona (BW)
Best play: Two Berries, a Cherry and a Boy (MR)

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