Plays Within a Better Play: A Review of ‘The Tragicomedy of Errors’

FROM THE VAULTS

Artists lead such busy lives, editors can’t keep up with them! Sometimes our reviews fall through the cracks, and don’t get posted in time. But we still think they might be useful. So now we present a series of articles from the past. Remember this show?

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The Tragicomedy of Errors

By Pentas Project Theatre Production

18-21 October 2018
Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre

 

REVIEW BY TICKET TIGER

The recent Tragicomedy of Errors at klpac’s Pentas 1 is a Malaysian adaptation of “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land” by Taiwan’s Performance Workshop. “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land” was itself devised by its original cast and director in 1986. It combined two earlier stories – a tragedy (Secret Love) and a classical fable (The Peach Blossom Land).

Tragicomedy maintains much of the source material’s plotline of two plays-within-a-play, while modifying it to a Malaysian context. The “Secret Love” portion has been adapted into Malay by Fasyali Fadzly in collaboration with Pentas Project and director Loh Kok Man (Loh is also lighting designer).

“Secret Love” tells the story of star-crossed lovers Johan (Anwar Rusdini) and Mei Yue (Lenna Lim). In their youth, they fall in love just as Singapore and Malaya unite to form Malaysia. Time, distance, and political and racial unrest split them. In his later years, Johan’s health deteriorates and this drives a desperation in him to reunite with Mei Yue, despite already being married for many years to another woman (played by Anne James).

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A Director (Na’a Murad) tries his best to bring his vision of “Secret Love” to life as opening day approaches, but he faces the challenge of actors who don’t understand his direction, an incompetent assistant director and, worse of all, another theatre group who has double booked the stage.

That rival group is opening its own play, “Peach Blossom Land”, a comedy in Mandarin about a struggling fisherman, Lao Tao (Yeo Lyle), whose wife Blossom (MayJune) is having a barely hidden affair with their landlord Master Yuan (Leow Hui Min). Blossom and Master Yuan send Lao Tao on a rather dangerous fishing trip, but a storm sends Lao Tao’s boat ashore a hidden and mysterious idyll of otherworldly bliss, far from the misery of his humdrum life.

Scenes from both “Secret Love” and “Peach Blossom Land” are interspersed with scenes of the two groups arguing and dismissing the artistic merits of the other play, fighting for the stage and shoving each other’s props and set pieces off stage to gain space. These scenes were in English (making Tragicomedy a rare trilingual play) and were undoubtedly the most exciting to watch. The tug of war between the two troupes led to most of the play’s conflict and comedy.

Unfortunately, those scenes were short, few and far between, with “Secret Love” and “Peach Blossom Land” presented almost as two plays which just happened to be mashed up together. While there were some obvious parallels and differences between the two stories, and the two troupe’s approaches, none were particularly thought provoking or insightful. The two plays within the play did not complement each other and in fact detracted from each other’s strengths.

Johan and Mei Yue’s love story had a few tender moments but for the most part seemed trite and languid. “Peach Blossom Land” had moments of brilliance – some lovely word play and physical comedy – yet also felt in need of heavy editing. I watched each portion wondering what was going on with the other troupe and longing for the scenes where both troupes went at loggerheads with each other.

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The only scene where the interspersing of the two plays truly paid off was when the directors compromised and agreed to rehearse both plays concurrently. As a hospital scene and a scene from the hidden Peach Blossom Land played out, the lines of dialogue between the two plays mingled in a delightful cocktail of double entendres and brilliant comedic timing.

Yet after that singular scene, it was back to scenes from the other two plays again. It seemed a measly payoff after a hard slog, with even more slogging to be done.

To the production’s credit, the ensemble by and large did a stellar job in spite of a lackluster script, with Na’a Murad and the Peach Blossom Land trio being stand outs. The sets (by Chan Wei Lin), lighting and costumes (by Michell Yong) showed flair, in particular the set design and lighting for the dreamlike Peach Blossom Land. Yet as a whole Tragicomedy never quite took off, let alone lived up to its ambition of exploring language barriers between communities.

In a rather meta moment of Tragicomedy, “Secret Love’s” Director tells off his assistant for using superfluous visual projections to evoke an emotional response from the audience. The Director declares, “This is theatre! It’s straight to the point!” In hindsight it was ironic –Tragicomedy failed to reflect that ethos of immediacy and directness in theatre. I left the three-hour play wondering what was the point of it all.

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All photos by Pam Lim courtesy of Pentas Project.

 


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