DISCLAIMER: This will not be a review as much as it is a rave.
Did you know?
You are the one person I have ever truly loved. All my life.
The one constant that I never figured out.
The one thing I have never regretted.
Without conditions, without reason.
And yet. The single truth in my life.
Against which everything else becomes relative.
Everything But The Brain is a legendary text of sorts between myself and a few close friends.
I first encountered this play as the first Singaporean play I had ever read in my life. I was one of those students who hated Singaporean literature, even scorning it to be a “mock-up” of American and British canonical works. The joke’s on me now, because I have seen and loved more Singaporean pieces than foreign ones. Nevertheless, this playtext managed to cut through my most evident disdain for all things mathematical and for Singaporean literature with its core message of love and the inevitability of life, loss and death. A month after I finished EBTB, while I was still raving about it, it was announced that EBTB would be restaged in August 2013. I could hardly wait! In fact, when I saw various responses to EBTB get staged, I was even more expectant. And yes, this particular staging by Sightlines Productions was not one to disappoint.
When I first read this play, I was very taken by a few concepts. On the conceptual aspect, I liked how the play handled big, abstract concepts such as time, death, loss, filial piety and yet came out not just coherent, but relatable. I was so new to theatre at that time and I remember being so fascinated by it that I couldn’t stop talking about it. I scrutinized the play cover to cover. Slowly, I became more and more aware of the technical genius of the play as well. The notion of time resonates in the play so that you actually feel time creeping up on you, but because of its wording you never truly have it smashed it in your face all the time. I also loved the Three Bear chorus, perhaps because it was reminiscent of my favourite play of all time, Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. I was (and still am) much taken with the role of narrators in theatre. When I was reading it, I couldn’t grasp any of its physics concepts, but somehow at the end of the play it didn’t matter, because that was not the core message. It seemed to me to be a bridge, a rope to tie everything together, and it did so very well. I had hoped the staging would give me a more concrete image of the entire play – after all, plays are primarily written to be performed, not read, right?
So, let’s start with my favourite. All we saw on stage when we first sat down were 2 chairs and a black backdrop. I even asked Yogi, “Looks a little empty, doesn’t it?” This set consisted of a black fringe “curtain” and two very well-designed chairs that multi-tasked as suitcases. Throughout the play, these were used to the fullest extent, portraying chairs, hospital beds, suitcases, etc. I like it when sets are kept minimalist and multi-tasking because every scene change costs you precious seconds and distracts the audience – I felt that this set was particularly well designed. The curtains served as a peeking hole for the three bears at times, and at others, showed a time warp. Overall, the feel of the set as one that moved and was never solidly in place gave the whole concept of impermanence a concrete manifestation and I liked it very, very much.
Next, the projections. Again, I am a sucker for beautiful projections. The use of projections in plays can really help the visuals gain a foothold on the mind and this time, the images of neurons was truly apt. I probably only wished that they had projected some memorable quotes from the book as well, but that’s probably just me and my obsession with typography. I have nothing much to say about the lighting and the sound (except that they are very thoughtfully and skilfully designed) because I am not well-versed with that technical aspect of theatre but the sound of clocks going tick-tock at the end was very disconcerting indeed, and reinforced the idea of time being unstoppable and relentless.
Similarly, once I grasp that absolute truth in my life, everything else will make sense.
You are the one true thing in my life.
The one thing that never made sense.
This particular staging had a very wonderful cast. Let’s start with Father. Father was played by Gerald Chew, the same actor who won a ST Life! Best Actor award for the 2006 staging of EBTB. In this staging of EBTB, I can see why he won the award. Between dry wit, stubbornness, and vulnerability, Gerald Chew gave life to the character of Father, from an independent man madly in love with Physics, who struggles to care for his 6 year-old daughter post-divorce, to the man who struggles with the emotional and physical burdens of stroke.
Koh Wan Ching also put up a very convincing performance as Elaine. Elaine for me is a multi-dimensional character, and mostly a conflicted one – I see her as someone who loves her father but does not verbalize it, someone who yearns for a prince charming of her own but is torn by duty to her father. One cannot help but feel for Wan Ching’s portrayal of Elaine, even during the times that she threw tantrums as a child, and most of all, when she was at the brink of giving up but continued caring for her father. I like to see her as someone with a soft core but steely exterior and the most poignant moments of the play came from her.
In this staging, I feel that the love line between Dr. Sam & Elaine were a little downplayed, or it might be my unreliable teenage mind giving it extra focus when I was reading the play. Nevertheless, the role called for a handsome, dashing young doctor, and Edward Choy certainly made the cut! He injected lightheartedness into the play with the casual air that a seasoned actor often has and I found myself liking this character above all by the end of the night.
Now, for the chorus members. When I first saw the chorus members in the poster, I was a little skeptical. I truly didn’t know what I was in for. Never had I expected that the three bears were a family, or perhaps I’d missed that nuance in the playtext. All three of them were spectacular as they switched roles here and there, pushing the play forward. If I hadn’t been convinced of Amanda Tee and Cassandra Spykerman’s skill back when I watched Sisters, I now have all the proof I need! Both girls never leave me in doubt of what magic they conjure on stage – I am a big fan! As for Faizal, it was my first time seeing him perform, but he was a riot with his acting and not least, his accents, and I really bought into his role as Papa Bear.
Overall, I think what really made the play come alive for me tonight was the genius playwriting by Jean, the skilful directing by Derrick Chew and.. oh, who am I kidding? Each and every one of the cast and crew made this a memorable experience for me. After all, isn’t that what I love most about theatre? The way each part works like clockwork gears to present a piece of writing that has the potential to impact people? Today I left the theatre feeling dazed, as I always feel after a good play. This might just be the best piece of theatre in 2013, who knows? A piece has finally kicked Sisters out of its place as reigning champion!
Oh, you asked why Everything But the Brain is a legendary play of sorts? Well, let’s just say that it always leaves me in tears, with a sort of thoughtful, deep-seated sadness. If I have the opportunity to, I will definitely be back for seconds.. (ha, ha, if you get the pun).
This production runs from 10-21 Aug 2013, tickets on sale at SISTIC (here!). Quickly grab your tickets and let me know what you think of it!