Dogged Delirium: “Petty People” by NUS Theatre Studies

By Akanksha Raja

(760 words, 7-minute read)

Petty People marks the culmination of the undergraduate course for the graduating class of NUS Theatre Studies 2017. The play begins with a quadriptych of scenarios strung together by the enigma of a dog and its ambiguous mortality. The pooch is never seen. Its presence is indicated only by the sound of its tail beating against the veterinarian’s metal table. Why the title Petty People if it centres around a dog? Of course, the play is not about the pet at all, but the animal instinct hidden deep in the collective human psyche that unites nine seemingly disparate characters.

The vet (Christer Aplin) and his sycophantic assistant (Perry Shen) pronounce the dog, Brownie, clinically dead, and try to coerce its owner, Charlie (Nicholas Tan) to agree to put him to sleep.

Hidayah (Pearl Wee), a Muslim girl, is desperately convinced the dog is her late brother, to the chagrin of her devout imam (Fadhil Daud).

Fadhil Daud as Imam, Pearl Mikaila Wee as Hidayah

Charlie desperately convinces his mother Mdm Tan (Cordelia Lee) to hire a dubious and expensive medium (Teresa Chen) to contact the canine. Through the individual monologues of mother and son, we learn more about Charlie’s intense attachment to his beloved Brownie, and Mdm Tan’s miscellaneous mid-life anxieties.

Charlie’s father, Robert (Michael Ng), is a scientist getting desperately, worryingly delusional that the dog is watching him and trying to kill him. He is on a flight saddled with a nosy and competitive ex-schoolmate Mr Lee (Kenneth Chia) whom Robert discovers snooping through his papers – which intensifies his paranoia.

Kenneth Chia as Mr Lee, Stewardess Jane, Michael Ng as Robert

The play weaves in and out of these individual mounting tensions, before it all implodes – as if through canine spirit possession – into a rampage of wild physical theatre against a sudden flood of pastel-toned balloons. Repressed fears and desires boil over, violent and lusty. All semblance of narrative structure breaks apart. The play’s main interest is in the representation of pure psychological states of being: the characters devolve from their named, titled, self-conscious selves, into creatures sprawled on the floor, wrestling with each other or rubbing balloons against themselves.

The production then plunges into further illogic when Perry Shen’s character dons floppy ears (like that Snapchat filter) and full-on campiness to lead the audience on a carnivalesque tour of various freak-show animals, such as a rabbit with a single hair which is absurdly balloon-shaped. The rest of the creatures cheer and howl, tearing down the set in between exhibits. It’s to Shen’s credit that his brazen silliness encouraged the audience to abandon their confusion and just buy into the randomness. Being just pure uproarious entertainment, this bizarre interlude doesn’t even try to fit into the flow of the piece. On the down side, it made the production feel capricious and distracted.

A redeeming quality of this play that clearly doesn’t take itself seriously at all, is that the actors do. All the characters (in their conscious human state) are comically exaggerated, but grounded in a believability that makes them feel familiar, rather than caricature. The frenemy dynamic between Robert and Mr Lee was particularly engaging comedy, and Michael Ng’s development from composed rationality to breathless, racing panic is commendable. One would be keen on watching these performers in future flesh out deeper intricacies of a more sober play.

Moving between the main flow of happenings, are a triad of violet figures that act like a modern-day Greek chorus. They are dressed like early Lady Gaga – geometric costumes and elaborate make-up – and communicate with the audience through text and drawings on handheld tablets, that are then projected onto the background. The trio hold up large ornate magnifying glasses to each scenario as it plays out. This could be read either as a commentary on our contemporary culture of social media spectatorship, or on increasing surveillance by tech companies or government.

Poker-faced paparazzi.

At some point a muted video montage is played in the background depicting the characters slowly going mad, interspersed by queasy cuts from Luis Buñel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929). This overt reference to surrealism, and the Beckettian plotline, show that the team have clearly done their modern art history homework, and were keen to let us know they knew. It seems to be carried away by the quirky irreverence of surrealism and absurdism to the point that it feels a little overwrought. For a brief scene towards the end, the madness segues back into the remains of the storyline as we learn the secret behind the vet’s adamance that Brownie be put down. But by that point, the play has led the audience so deep down the rabbit hole, it doesn’t matter any more.


Selected Reviews

“Review: Petty People by NUS Theatre Studies” (bakchormeeboy)

“Concentrate on the dog wagging his tail, not on that the tail might wag the dog.” by Christian W Huber (Centre 42)

Petty People played at the Yale-NUS Black Box from 29 – 31 March 2017. It was devised, written, performed and produced by the graduating students of the undergraduate NUS Theatre Studies programme, under the direction of Thong Pei Qin, a theatre practitioner who is also a 2009 NUS Theatre Studies alumnus.

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