By Isaac Lim
(676 words, 6-minute read)
Jeanette Peh promotes herself as a ‘star’, with ‘over 500 followers’ on her ‘Stage Whispers’ YouTube channel which promises straight-up, no-holds-barred confessions. Is that the reality, or is she just a wannabe?
Jo Tan’s first full-length play, Forked, directed by Chen Yingxuan, is a laugh-a-minute comedy, albeit one that goes on for far too long. It’s heavy-handed, and becomes a tad predictable in its jokes and targets. It also sits a little uncomfortably between a stage play and a TV sitcom.
Peh (played by Ethel Yap) is a ‘highly westernised’ Chinese Singaporean, who prefers to adopt a British accent when speaking in English. Against her parents’ wishes, she abandons her chance at law school to chase her dreams, enrolling at an acting school in London. There, she resists calls to “be herself” and speak in her “native language”. Her classmates dismiss her as pretentious, and so does the acting coach she idolises. She tries hard to get into her instructor’s good books by performing passionate monologues from Macbeth, clinging to a British cultural heritage she never owned like a drowning woman to a life vessel.
At the heart of the play is an examination of identity politics, exploring how some people choose to put on false fronts to gain society’s acceptance. In adopting another culture and voice that she considers superior, Peh ends up losing her sense of self and gets lost. But just how many times must this idea be repeated, and how many characters must there be regurgitating the same stance, to get this notion across? That is the problem with Forked. Each scene is filled with punchlines and outrageous antics. Tan seems to stuff too much into the script, with too many characters telling similar stories, resulting in a play that slacks off in the second half.
However, kudos to the energetic cast for bringing on stage some convincing performances. Taiwan-born Chang Ting Wei has a gift of adopting various accents, switching comfortably between ‘neutral’ English, Chinglish and Japlish, plus different Mandarin ones. She can be endearing as Peh’s mother, then bubbly cute as Chinese girl Li Yun Yun (in a pink Hello Kitty jumpsuit, no less).
A large part of the comedy works with local/Asian cultural references. Playwright Tan herself appears in ‘commercial’ segments, as the token Hollywood Asian superstar, Bella Matsuda. She knows her kungfu moves, calculates with ‘mathemagic’, and turns into a geisha to sip some China Wine. Peh plays on this cultural stereotype in an attempt to embrace her Singaporean roots, imitating fictional-icon Phua Chu Kang on her YouTube video, speaking in broken English and putting on a wig and yellow boots. These skits undoubtedly milk the most laughs from the audience, but they are overly repetitive. In laughing at them, are we subverting the racial stereotypes they promote, or colluding with them?
Just as dubious is the inclusion of the character Scott (Jamil Schulze), Peh’s supposed Greek boyfriend, who’s a tad too suspiciously tanned. It turns out that he’s a Muslim from Cyprus, taking on a pseudonym to avoid being judged based on his name and religion. The script tries to heighten the Britain-vs-foreigner tension by situating the story at the cusp of the Brexit vote. Instead it merely dilutes the story, complicating the plot, making it increasingly uninvolving to watch.
Towards the end, Peh concludes that perhaps she has found her true self, and is ready to embrace it. She speaks to the camera, declaring “I am Jeanette Peh” in a neutral accent. However, instead of ending the show on that note, the play runs on. We see Li returning as a successful actress, bumping into Peh who is now selling dim sum, dressed in a cheongsam. Kitschy fun as it may be, the melancholy feels didactic and over-egged.
Peh’s acting teacher tells her in class to “come back when you’ve learned to stop pretending”. Just like its characters, Forked needs try less hard to be all things to all people, and instead streamline and focus to make few points more boldly and succinctly.
This review is based on the performance on 26 January 2018 at 8pm. Forked by Jo Tan ran from 25 to 27 January at the NAFA Studio Theatre as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
Isaac Lim is a full-time daydreamer and most-of-the-time writer. He holds an Honours degree in Theatre Studies from NUS, is a copywriter, playwright, theatregoer. He likes the word ‘and’ because it brings about many possibilities, and can be found on IG through #ZacGoesToTheTheatre.
This review was written as part of the Lyn Gardner Theatre Criticism Training Program, an Initiative by the National Arts Council, managed by ArtsEquator.com.