By Kathy Rowland
(1,014 words, 6-minute read)
ITI’s graduation production, Lie With Me is filled with broken characters, caught in capsules of emotional decrepitude. The work, written by Kaite O’Reilly is based on Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, repurposed to examine the fissures of contemporary relationships.
Set in an urban landscape marked by anonymity and repressed anger, the eight vignettes unfold over as many months. Each piece features a couple, each of different pairings. In the opening scene, an inebriated young girl (Regina Toon), mired in self-absorbed hurt, is blind to the precarious existence of the good Samaritan, a nurse (Earnest Hope Tinambacan) who tries to help her. In the following scene, the same girl, now sober, is locked in a two-step of resentment and unresolved father issues with her sister (Theresa Wee-Yenko).
This then is the structure of the work: one character in each scene plays it forward, bridging into the following scene, a human baton that keeps the Lie With Me relay going.
It gives the audience different entry points to the characters, each scene either peeling back a layer to reveal, or adding more meat to the bone. The device also allows the graduates to show off their abilities, as they flesh out their characters in two different settings, playing off two different partners.
In the first two scenes however, the device fails to break meaningful ground. The scenes are hampered by dialogue that is perfunctory in parts, and performances that feel forced (drunk girl) or under-rehearsed (sisters).
The pace picks up in the next scene, which opens with a woman in a red power suit. Wendy Toh is all sharp angles and ever-sharper aphorisms, as she derides the shiny happy people (their “rictus grin… on a skull”). Theresa Wee-Yenko’s character is back as the underling, hopelessly smitten by her boss. The boss dives in for a kiss, a thoughtless reflex which she immediately pathologises, “it’s a sickness … completely beyond my control”.
There are micro shifts in the characters – wish fulfilment in the underling, self-righteous cruelty in the boss – which surface an unsettling complexity to the #MeToo moment. These power dynamics flow as an undercurrent into the next scene. Lady boss is this time clasped in the warm embrace of her lover, lately fiancée, played by Jin Chen. All is not as it seems as the repercussions of her workplace indiscretions leads to a dramatic denouncement (hint: don’t save the date).
In between each scene, director Phillip Zarrilli has the ensemble perform various movement pieces, supported by Ctrl Fre@k’s sound design. At its most functional, these allow the performers to showcase their versatility. For the viewer, the transitions appear first as palate cleansers. As the production progresses, these interludes give rhythm to the work, streaming the individual pieces into a more cohesive whole. The set by Dorothy Png enables seamless surtitling of the dialogue and brief descriptors of the sound design, giving access to members of the deaf community.
The fiancée, now de-ringed, is auditioning an actor (Ted Nudgent Fernandez Tac-An), for either a high-brow performance art project or a fetish porn site (pity the reviewer who dares to say which). The promise evident in Jin Chen’s first scene is fully delivered as she skillfully increases the emotional register of the character, from cool disinterest to attentive cruelty. Fernandez Tac-An keeps tight control of his performance as he impales his palpable decency upon the broken shards of the filmmaker’s shattered self. When survival is at stake, a placid demeanour is the humiliation of choice after all.
We enter next into the intimacy of the actor and his girlfriend (Tysha Khan). Zarrilli sets them on a mattress on the floor, as far back as the shallow stage will allow, against a metallic backdrop. This reduces them visually, the makeshift bed transmitting enough to clue us in on their fragile social and economic situation. They archly exchange declarations of love. Fernandez Tac-An and Tysha Khan play the surface with cheerful irony – all verbosity and platitudes – while transmitting depths of fierce love.
All the other pairings in Lie With Me engage each other through evasion and duplicity, as befits the double entendre of the title. Yet this is the only scene where turning away from the stark truth is a joint activity. To withstand the indignities of life, fantasy is a necessity, not an indulgence, for this young couple.
In this scene, and the one before it, all three performers – Jin Chen, Ted Nudgent Fernandez Tac-An and Tysha Khan – shine. It is that happy place for the audience where a script with vigour meets strong performers, supported by sensitive direction. The filmmaker and the couple – that’s a play I’d pay good money to see.
We’re hit with a burst of chutzpah in the next scene, when Nour el Houda Essafi comes on with a motivational talk on female empowerment. Our infatuation with TED Talk has long passed, so you know immediately that this is not going to end well. Cue the antagonist, the girlfriend, here a nameless gig worker. This piece deals most directly with one per center politics that pervious scenes have built up to. Despite being nakedly ‘issue’ driven, the characters are not caricatures, and both actors deliver nuanced performances.
In the final scene, the nurse returns, post hook-up, with the motivational speaker. Earnest Hope Tinambacan is given space to redeem himself of his opening performance. His is the centrepiece of the closing work and he brings a mournful despair to the role.
Of the eight vignettes that make up Lie With Me, the middle scenes were the most satisfying because they ventured into pairings that bear the stain of contemporary life with imagination and insight. While there were clear stand-out performances, all of the actors had equal opportunity to showcase their skills. O’Reilly describes the structure of Lie With Me as a ‘daisy chain’ and the ostensibly separate pieces come together into a fragile but viable whole. For the graduating class of the Intercultural Theatre Institute, Lie With Me is as good a coming out as there can be.
Lie With Me was presented by the Intercultural Theatre Institute as part of its 2019 graduation showcase. It ran from 7-9 Nov 2019 at Esplanade Theatre Studio in Singapore. More info here.
Kathy Rowland is the co-founder of ArtsEquator.