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17 Jul 2007

Asian Boys Volume III: Happy Endings

Alfian Sa'at's latest (and last) gay play is a textured, thoughtful and thought-provoking piece that will reach out to the gay community and beyond.

Producer: W!ld Rice

Time: 11 - 29 July 2007, Tue-Fri, 8pm; Sat-Sun, 3pm and 8pm

Venue: Drama Centre @ National Library

The year is 1991. Johann Lee, then barely 20, just doing his national service, decides to pen a novel. The result: Peculiar Chris, a delightful little morsel that evokes - perhaps too closely for comfort - the trills of adolescence: first crushes, blossoming love, the ebb and swell of complex, nascent emotions. The catch: Peculiar Chris is a gay - not straight - coming-of-age novel. The eponymous protagonist, Chris, dates a woman from the confines of his closet but falls in love with a man.

Happy Endings: Asian Boys Vol 3 stars an ensemble of both new and familiar faces including Ben Seow (middle pic, centre), Koey Foo (bottom, left), Robin Goh (bottom, with book), Timothy Nga (next to Goh), Lim Kay Siu, Karen Tan, and Pierre Goh.
Fast forward just over a decade, and we are in 2003. Singapore's foremost playwright, Alfian Sa'at, inspired by Peculiar Chris, gets in touch with Lee, asking if he can use Lee's novel as material for his play. Lee agrees. The result: Asian Boys Volume III, the swan song in Sa'at's gay trilogy.

If Volume I dealt with the camp, the absurd, the theatrical, and Volume II its exact opposite, gritty vignettes portraying psychological realism, then Volume III deals with the interface between the two: what is theatre, and what is real life? What is fiction, and what is fact? And, more importantly, how can fiction affect fact, or vice versa?

Sa'at's play is cleft into two acts: the first, a transliteration of Peculiar Chris from page to stage. Lee's novel is deconstructed through Sa'at's subversive eye: as Joe Lee (convincingly rendered by a chiseled-cheeked Ben Xiao) writes his novel, he is confronted by his muse (a square-jawed Robin Goh) and his characters. Add to this a silent chorus and you're pretty much in Brechtian territory - characters break out of their roles demanding to know their eventual fates, the Fourth Wall is completely reversed - ironically highlighting the theatrics behind which the closeted gay man hides. The boundaries of fictional representation are probed, in particular, portrayals of gay relationships: "Why does every gay story have to in someone dying?" Chris's muse demands to know. Meta-theatre forces the play (and therefore the novel) onto itself; the nature of art itself is questioned: "The plot is what happens, but when it happens to someone's life you call it destiny."

Sa'at expands on the plot (and the characters' destinies) in Act II. Without the fetters of staying true to the novel, his voice rings fierce and true through the voices of the characters. Fifteen years after the novel's end, Chris is an migr to London with second thoughts about renouncing his citizenship. His girlfriend, Syl, is a tough-as-nails gay activist. His teenage love, Ken, is an ex-gay speaker, a divorc with two kids. Sa'at's razor wit slices its way through the layers of Singaporean politics. Through a gay lens, prickly issues such as the integrated resorts are discussed: Syl complains that the pink dollar has "made way for casino chips." The government's stance is "gay consumers: yes; gay citizens: no."

Thankfully, the political never overshadows the personal in ABV3 - in fact, "the personal is the political". The play does not take on - as Homesick, Sa'a't's last English-language play did - a rough agitprop texture; instead, we never lose sight of the characters: their emotions, their petty motivations, their lives unfolding. Kudos especially to Koey Foo for his compelling portrayal of Nick, a self-loving gay man who trades his confidence for body dysmorphia in the name of unrequited love. Foo breathes poisonous irony into Nick's luxuriously morbid description of the orgy experience, throwing light onto the psyche of the allure of PNP (party and play: a term to mean individual or group sex while using drugs or alcohol). There is a psychological reality here that is palpable. The audience is not presented with caricatures. Even the ex-gay Ken is not demonised (though it would have been easy to do so), he is amply rounded out; just as his opponent, the gay activist Syl, is not made out to be a heroine, but shown to be, as all are, flesh-and-blood. E.M. Forster (whose gay novel Maurice is exchanged between the teenaged characters) would have been proud.

But flesh-and-blood is mortal, and ABV3 is a startling reminder that gay men have a past, and therefore, a future. The action of the play spans fifteen years, and the characters are three generations apart. Sa'at confronts the theme of age and growing old in a culture obsessed with youth and staying young.

Dancing becomes a loaded metaphor - in the past, you danced with a partner, looking in his eyes, as Lim Kay Siu's character, a graying gay man, explains. Today, you dance in a noisy club, looking over your partners shoulder at someone better. The gay obsession with youth is the lesser cousin of the Singaporean preoccupation with newness and newfangledness: Chris's primary school has been "torn down" to make way for something else, while in the internet age no one ever bothers to send letters, which have "the dignity of yellowing with age."

It's small observations like these that make ABV3 a joy to watch. From a gay premise, ABV3 reaches out, expands and achieves a sort of transcendence. You don't feel so much for the characters because they're gay, but because they're human. And who hasn't felt the frissons of teenage love? The rage of political fecklessness? The stinging edge of hypocrisy? The nostalgia of love cooling; the chances missed? At the play's happy ending, when the characters make their books take flight (a sly reference to Sa'at's Portrait of a Sentenced Library?), you almost wanted to believe that this work of fiction could indeed be fact.

W!ld Rice presents:
Happy Endings: Asian Boys Vol.3 (18 and above)
Produced by W!ld Rice
Date: 11 - 29 July 2007
Time: Tue-Fri, 8pm; Sat-Sun, 3pm and 8pm
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre
Tickets: Preview Shows
(11 & 12 July) 8PM
S$48, S$43, S$38, S$33, S$33(Restricted View)
Tues-Thurs & Sun Evening 8PM, Sat & Sun Matinee 3PM
S$53, S$48, S$43, S$38, S$38(Restricted View)
Fri & Sat Evening 8PM
S$58, S$53, S$48, S$43, S$43(Restricted View)
Excludes $2 Sistic Booking Fee
Available at Sistic

The Art & Life Sessions
Engage with the most interesting, forward thinking minds of our "concerned citizenry" to reflect and debate the issues raised and challenged by Happy Endings.

Venue: Function Room, Drama Centre @ National Library Level 3
15 July 5:30pm - PECULIAR LEGISLATION: S377A - Symbol or Statute?
22 July 5:30pm - PECULIAR ADAPTATIONS: Crossing Mediums - Fresh Afterlife or The Living Dead?
29 July 5.30pm - PECULIAR INSPIRATIONS: The Muse - Of Sirens and Tyrants

Feedback Fridays
Enrich your theatre-going experience. Meet the Artist and discuss what you've seen at a post-show discussion immediately following each Friday evening's performance (20 & 27 July).

Related article:
johann s. lee and alfian sa'at's ''happy endings''


Reader's Comments

1. 2007-07-18 00:18  
Great and insightful review, Justin! Kudos!

I totally agree with your singling out of Koey's portrayal of Nic. Near the end of the play, when Nicole meets Nic, the dam holding back all those years of repressed feelings and emotions broke. The physical and emotional breakdown portrayed by Koey was so real, heartfelt and moving that I teared - the only time I did so during the entire play.... :'(

Karen Tan was equally inspiring as the grown-up Sylvia. I feel for her character's passion for gay activism, and her frustrations arising from the fact that the community whose rights she is fighting for does not even bother to stand up for their own rights. Any one who have previously fought for a cause (gay or otherwise) but went unappreciated - or even ridiculed for it - will surely empathise with her situation.

But not to take credit away from the rest of the brilliant and inspiring cast: Quality ensemble work was definitely evident throughout the duration of the performance! I especially enjoyed all those surprise breaks into acapella singing in 4-part harmony, cleverly arranged by Hansel Tan. This is definitely the first time I heard 'Auspicium Melioris Aevi' (at least the first stanza) sung and hummed in harmony! : )

And last, but definitely not least, the greatest compliment has to go to the real star - Alfian himself. Not only did he ingeniously reinvented and brought to life the book 'Peculiar Chris', he extended its scope in time and space, and in the process, highlighted all the pertinent issues facing the local (and especially, the GLBT) community.

In sum, I feel that it would not be fair to call this a "gay play". It deals with gay themes and gay-related issues, but at the heart of it, it is essentially a play about the human condition. And I am definitely looking forward to more thought-provoking plays that double up as social commentaries from our very own local born-and-bred prodigy!
2. 2007-07-18 16:21  
I feel the the characters come across a little too flat packed like furniture from ikea. I didn't like the way there was an an all too convenient explanation for the way Nic and Sylvia turned out; that they didn't get enough affirmation while they were growing up so they overcompensated. And the character of Kenneth is also too predictable as with the preaching towards the end (the fight between Nic and Sylvia.) I would like to think that activists like Sylvia exist because they believe in equality and social justice, not because they were unceremoniously dumped when they were in their teens.
3. 2007-07-26 14:20  
I think this is a nice Movie! I hope I can watch it here in the Philippines.

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