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  M1SFF09: FROZEN ANGELS - ENSHRINING THE LOVE [REVIEW/RESPONSE]
« on: January 13, 2009, 11:54:57 AM » by alvintck
FROZEN ANGELS - ENSHRINING THE LOVE
by Z'ming Huang

Soap opera and hard sciences do not make natural bedfellows. But Frozen Angels, a play by The Necessary Stage exploring issues of life sciences, has few trappings of a soap opera, and no interest at all in sci-fi gadgets. Anyone expecting to see, say, the shape of an Ubermensch with admirable capabilities emerging against the cold fog and blinding lights of an incubator, will be sorely disappointed. What one witnesses instead is the unfolding of three different stories set in an alternative reality of Singapore as a global but less than utopian city, presented in a clever interplay between multimedia screen images and the actors in the flesh. Potentials abound for full-blown melodrama here, like the intimate unbuttoning in the back of a car between a Bangladeshi man and a Chinese woman, or an old Malay man in wheelchair laughing at the thought of bequeathing his house to his Filipino maid. But the creators of the play (playwright Haresh Sharma and director Alvin Tan) deftly skirt away from any such indulgence, preferring to leave the audience to read between lines and draw their own conclusions or associations of the play from the montage of live action and video images (multimedia designer is film-maker Loo Zihan). So the whole point here is not the plot but the message, and the message of the whole story is - well, something to search within your heart as you leave the theatre with some nice theme music ringing in your ears.

Chances are, one would not walk out beaming with a leap of faith in science as the answer to all human sufferings. Nowhere in the play do you see a crippled man picking himself up dramatically and going halleluia. But medical science is not exactly portrayed as a Frankenstein either. In the beginning, one actor as a Malay man talks about autopsy and such being a kind of taboo among the Malays, and then expresses that he himself has no problem with donating an organ after death to save another person (which is already by default more than choice under Singapore laws, unlike in Malaysia or elsewhere). In one surreal scene, a Chinese woman talks to her dead mother (on screen), expressing her regrets for not being able to get an organ transplant to save her, and the dead mother has to console her. Separately, in a vignette on eternal life, a Malay couple has managed to live up to 200 years together by means of some injection, but the girl becomes so bored with it all she finally says she does not want it any more. It is all a matter of options then, at least medical advances can provide you with options. Of course, we all have options in this society, but some will have more options than others. It is rather ingenious that the play, without a word of mention on medical care and 'class', includes a story about illegal trade of organs, and the man selling stem cells goes about his business just like some thug in a shop selling second-hand cell phones (brokering of organs is so topical, one less imaginative can also easily write a crime drama in realism).

The play has one matter crystal clear in its agenda, namely that of the family, which issues of human cells and organs are soon to entail. (This theme of the play echoes that of the Singapore Fringe Festival which it is part of.) But the sanctity of the family is not something enshrined by assumption here. More often than not, the characters tend to seek solace in alternative ways as their own family is too distant or estranged. The Bangladeshi worker remits money to give his wife and family back home a good life, but nothing stops him from having affair with a Chinese woman meantime. The old Malay man whom the daughter has abandoned starts treating his Filipino maids (a mother and her daughter who takes over her job) as family. Now one cannot go on without mentioning the excellent butterfly screen which has served organic functions throughout the action of the play. With just two actors (Siti Khalijah and Najib Soiman) handling all the roles on stage, taking on accents from Singaporean, Filipino to South Asian, the screen readily allows for their quick change while providing images or scenes of reminiscence, but it is also employed with much more artistry than that. Pre-recorded videos on screen are also juxtaposed with silhouettes, of actors moving behind in real time (or are they really there?). The video and shadow play can throw you off with a surprise jump-cut. But the most magical use of the butterfly screen has to be the three-way dialogue between the Filipino mother and daughter and their employer's daughter, all three played by the same actress, except two are speaking on screen. It is a sly reference to the question of cloning (I, Robot, anybody?), an issue not addressed directly in the play, which concerns itself rather with the present reality of globalisation and migrant workers and its impact on families.

The story that feels most flat in the play's development has to be that of the young Malay couple who want to be together forever, for as we all already suspect, eternity can be quite boring. And given the baggage of my stereotyping, I thought their portrayal was a cruel joke on Malay teenage couples, if not an intentional inversion. (A girl worrying more about her A levels than her romance? More than a hundred years together without thought of divorce? Am I the only one here tempted to say 'tak mungkin'? And living up to 200 years without producing a battalion of children and great-great-grandchildren? Did the government convince them from doing it?) Well, I thought it was apt though that the episode on screen ends with freeze frames of the couple looking in different directions. If you ask me, eternity as a concept for relationships is only good for a song ("And Aaai...aaye-yai... will always love you..."). As for what I like most in the play, it would be those little subtle intercultural moments that one might infer, such as the video of a wake in a void deck, where a bride slowly walks in. (Chinese and Malays in Singapore have very different uses for this common architectural space in HDB blocks.) That scene also turns out to be an interesting cross between the genre of horror (another reference to cloning, it is somewhat eerie with those persons appearing one by one, you wonder if the living has outnumbered the dead or the other way round) and the genre of Chinese soap opera, rendered in an absurdist manner with dramatic background music (the dead mother is dressed in a wedding gown, which may be interpreted as a form of hope in the play). And then in a scene later, one sees the Malay man in solitude sitting in his wheelchair as the screen shows images of Madonna with baby Jesus; should one relate that to his Filipino maid (and the Catholic faith) or simply to the idea of love between parent and child?

The issue of religious beliefs hardly comes to the foreground in this play. Instead, it just talks about issues of life and death, which are common concerns of all mankind. The play does not place all hopes on science either, and wisely so, for we know in the end it all comes down to how much love we have. Rocket sciences may bring a bout of euphoria, but what will keep us going when the honeymoon period is over?


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