Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Access Denied - A Promising Beginning

A review of Canvas! first production, Access Denied, cannot begin without expressing my admiration of the ambition of the producer as well as the boldness of the actors on embarking this project for it is a journey into uncharted waters for them. While, it is undeniable that I did have certain reservations with regards to an original production in all sense of the word, I am glad to admit how unfounded such reservations are.

In all honesty, Access Denied will not make it to Broadway or the West End. Its writing will not be earning 'Best Original Script' any time soon. But it is an early sketch of a portrait - a blatant reflection of human relationship. Something that we still need or perhaps smile quietly to ourselves as we passively identify ourselves with the characters. This is best summed up by Kester saying, 'It's like going through life...' This venture may be a sketchy impression of something profound.

Its format has some semblances to Alan Bennett's Talking Heads in which it consists of a series of monologues, with a slight departure as there are a few brief moments of interaction between the characters, that reveal different shades of human life. In particular, it reveals the different kinds of relationship and scenarios that we experience in giving ourselves to another. Inevitably, constructing a play in such a fashion does have its pros and cons.

For starters, having four characters delivering their personal monologues one after another can be daunting on the audience. This is due to the fact that the monologue is delivered in a confined space which limits the possibilities of blocking. This thus forces the audience to draw on the lines to keep up with the progress of the play and try to grasp the message of the playwright(s) - in this case, the actors are collaboratively involved in writing the script. Aside from this flaw, the format does allow the four characters to be developed fully. In addition, it clearly demarcates four motifs that are evident in the distinct personalities and storyline of the characters.

The four characters experience different kinds of love: Unrequited Love (Charmaine Poh), "Forbidden" Love (Mark Cheng), Loveless Union (Ng Yin Ling), Love Gone Wrong (Lesley Sia)

As a caveat, do note that such a categorisation is entirely out of my own devising and not set by anyone involved in the production. I have taken the such liberties to aid my readers in understanding what the respective monologues entail and it is not the actual title given to any of the characters. To those involved in the production, my sincere apologies that I did not manage to catch all the names of the characters, so it would be easier if I just name the actors. Additionally, if my categorisation is found to be inaccurate, once again I apologise. If that is the case, perhaps one can take it as a perception of one of the members in the audience.

Unrequited Love - Charmaine Poh

In terms of content, what characterises this set of monologues is the poetry of the lines which describes the physicality and behaviour of the character's beau at that time. It aptly emphasises how she cherishes every moment she spends with her man. The beauty of the lines were helpful to any actor as Charmaine portrayed her character well. The painful contemplation and the search for answers as to how could her lover just leave her and hurt her so badly was heart-wrenching to watch. The metaphor of letters in which one often sees her reading it or writing it is a beautiful image in trying to connect with her beau and deal with her pain.

Performatively, what sealed the deal for me was the sense of purity and truthfulness in the portrayal of the character. Underneath the beauty of the lines, that raw feeling of anguish and hurt, that came from Charmaine, was certainly impactful. I sank to a new low when she performed her final monologue when you could actually see her eyes becoming slightly moist and teary as she struggles with her feelings. It really makes one hope that no one should be subjected to such pain and hurt - something that does kill the spirit a little.

Unfortunately, I felt that Charmaine was slightly lacking in the energy in her delivery which resulted in the other actors overpowering her and as an overall trajectory of the play, there always seem to be a drop in energy whenever her monologue comes on. To be fair, this may not be exactly her fault due to the fact that her character that she portrays is of a passive nature as compared to the powerful one that Mark portrays. Also, she does not have much of an outburst in her lines as can be found in Lesley's lines. Therefore, it does appear as if Charmaine lacks the performative energy which is not exactly the case here.

In conjunction to that, Charmaine's character seems to be a departure to the overall pattern that the other characters have established. Her character does not have a clear progression of plot as it is concretely evident in the other characters. This is not to say that the character's nostalgic, almost surreal recollection is a weak idea but such a structure seemed to place this character out of sync due to the fact that the plot in the other monologues progresses steadily everytime the character comes on. As such, this inconsistency in conjunction with the passive nature of the character mars Charmaine's overall impact on the audience. This is definitely a pity.

"Forbidden" Love - Mark Cheng

Puuurrrr! Mark and his character were certainly a racket as the monologues got us hopping out of our seats due to the humourous moments or the poignant moments as we are forced out of our comfort zones to contemplate these important questions - Is homosexuality taboo? What is considered "normal" in society? How much do we have to conform to society's ridiculous ideals?

Mark's set of monologues truly captured the different aspects there is to be a homosexual in a society that is still judgmental and condescending. This is bolstered by lines that were well written as it seeks to explore the never-ending and sometimes humourous attempts to hide one's sexual orientation as well as the poignancy of it all that in the face of societal pressures, one sometimes unwittingly betrays oneself and assume a certain mould and therefore rejecting true love. I certainly applaud how it does not seek to lash out at society's judgments and prejudices. Instead, it just seek to present a man not being able to love fully and truly due to happenstance.

Mark is certainly a ball of energy with a sense of good showmanship as he easily manipulates the comic timing as well as presenting a myriad of reactions to life's challenging but hilarious circumstances much at the expense of our aching sides as a result of laughing too hard. Yet, as his monologues wind down to the poignant moments, there is a sense of maturity that comes across clearly as we see the layers of the character's personality in his struggle between assuring his lover that he truly loves him and that his wife is only for show. The scene in which he recounts the encounter with the beggar which resulted in him giving the beggar some cash is certainly impactful. This signifies that his character has occupied the mould that society has set for him as he offers money out of a sense of detached sympathy. By extension, he has come to accept what society has defined as being normal. The impact of the lines and the acting is profound so much so that at the time of writing, in revisiting his performance, I have to restrain myself from jotting down my opinions on this issue as it is only suitable for another post on another occasion. Perhaps such an impact is a testament to the fact that the actor is informed in his portrayal of the character.

Perhaps, the only bone I have to pick is the fact that Mark's character is always seen holding business documents and taking phone calls. This physical motif could actually be developed further than just to signify his occupation as a business man. It could be used to strengthen the theme of being bound by societal norms as with how one is being bound by a contract once a business deal is signed. The idea of the contract of love could be embedded into his monologue as his character claims that him marrying a woman is only for show and therefore a transaction with society. While his love for Edward is real and perhaps his love for his wife is transactional, one simply cannot ignore the fact that he is bonded by a contract and have to fulfill its conditions which actually drives a wedge between him and Edward. This would eventually amount to rejecting true love in the face and thus results in Edward leaving him and question his inherent acceptance of societal norms. Such a metaphor would throw his struggle into sharper relief as the corporate savvy audience of today would be able to grasp the comparison.

Loveless Union - Ng Yin Ling

How often have we heard that marriage is the tombstone of love? Well, that is exactly what Yin Ling's character encapsulates. Her frazzled hair and scrunched up corporate blouse was a convincing sight of a modern woman facing up to the jaded realities of life as she does her bit for the household and takes each day as it comes.

The extinguished flame of passion can never be more evident in her lines which is only focusd on her children and the growing up in the beginning. Towards the end, she begins to unravel the coldness between her husband and herself as she resorted to seeking sexual advice online but never cling upon them. The idea of seeking advice from an inanimate medium on something so sacred is certainly poignant - a sheer testament to how we have lost control of our lives as we get caught up with so many things.

Yin Ling did a credible job of portraying this jaded woman and had a wonderful arch in her performance as she unravels progressively. There is almost nothing to pick on in this case except that there could be more layers to this character than her just being jaded with life. This is especially so in view of the fact that a dead marriage is such a common theme that it borders on being cliche.

Love Gone Wrong - Lesley Sia

What started out as a movie loving girl suffering from a common case of puppy love turned out to be a struggle to find one's identity in the face of others and the need to reassert it in the face of a failed relationship. Her initial musings about finding the perfect match that mirrors the likes of the various Disney princesses turns out to be an illusion as she falls for a less than perfect prince charming who is actually the typical bad boy. Despite not being able to fulfill her Disney dream, she was in utter bliss. As the relationship goes on, it begins to dawn on her how uncontrollably wrong it is heading as it departs further and further away from the expected plot of a great love story - the sheer unpredictability of life. Towards the end, as she begins to feel inferior when her boyfriend leaves her for another girl which received a form of approval from his friends which she did not, she begins to reassert herself as a beautiful person and that she will not falter for this guy whom have taken every advantage of her.

By far, Lesley's character has the greatest veracity and it is an utter treat to watch Lesley moving from blissful happiness to despair with relative ease and craftsmanship. In the initial stages, her youthful and girly vigour in her musings certainly brings a smile to anyone as we remember our own romantic fantasies when we were younger. As her monologues progesses, there is an overwhelming sense of poignancy and maturity that animates from her. The vast difference between her earlier monologues as compared to her latter ones, which is filled with intensity and energy, is certainly astounding and a testament to her vesitility as an actress.
This is especially evident in a couple of her monologues in which she relates being sexually harrassed and her despair and bitterness in the aftermath as she hates herself for not doing anything about it. The intensity, energy and earnesty in dealing with her boyfriend molesting her, leaving her and the seeming disapproval of his friends certainly broke my heart and a sense of sympathy and sadness came over me as if the character is truly confiding in me.

While I do appreciate the energy and intensity, there are times when Lesley seems to upkeep the intensity by accelerating her monologue and delivering it in an extremely heated way. This slight falter in the performance condenses the character and her experience. Instead, a thoughtful choice of pauses and really let what the character says sink into the audience rather than presenting her anger and bitterness would be more impactful. However, to be fair, it is indeed exciting to watch Lesley as with the other actors.
On a more personal note, it is amazing to see how much the actors have improved and mature performatively. The whole production is a considerable success with certain compelling themes that leaves the audience to identify with and know that love is an inevitable part of the human experience.
One can only wish them the very best for their future endeavours and hope that a future collaboration is in order....

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