05 August 2007

Asian Boys Vol. 3

At the end of Kill Bill Vol. 2, Uma Thurman as The Bride walks out of the mansion with her young daughter- not into the sunset, for that fate has been reserved for Bill (David Carradine). Instead, the lioness and her cub retire to a hotel where The Bride, resolved of the burden of her karmic duty, experiences joy mixed with an equal amount of sorrow, held together by tremendous relief.

Uma Thurman crying and sobbing next to the water closet, in a closet-like room

Asian Boys Vol. 3 is a theatrical adaptation as peculiar as the novel on which it is based. The 2-act drama takes Singapore's first published gay novel, Peculiar Chris, and does very different things to it in each act - the first half takes a playful, postmodern view on the original text, while the second "plays it for real", as a straightforward speculative continuation of the novel, almost 2o years on. What makes ABV3 a peculiar fish is how the concepts of these 2 acts struggle at odds with each other.

The idea behind Act 1 is a postmodern presentation of Peculiar Chris: Joe the author is himself a character in this play, in the process of completing Singapore's first published gay novel; amidst the reenactment of the novel's highlights, the author - doubling in the part of Chris - is on occasion reproached and interrogated by his muse and all other characters of the novel.

The metatextual repartee between the author and his subjects make up much of the wit in this act, but it is a wit that dulled by the simultaneous urge of the play to pay tribute to the landmark status of the novel. Act 1 is queer fish indeed; one cannot decide whether this is a somewhat straightforward adaptation of the original material, a gushing tribute to the importance of Peculiar Chris and Johann S Lee, or with the references to sometimes naive writing of a 19-year-old, a arch deconstruction of the novel. It is unfortunate, because the script fails to see through any of these 3 approaches far enough.

Armed with the best lines of the play (all taken from Peculiar Chris) and a playful and inventive approach, it's a mystery how Act 1 falls a short distance off the mark it should have reached.

This scene with Uma Thurman stretches for almost a full minute

Act 2 is a fresh beginning, a fresh approach: imagine if all the characters of Peculiar Chris were "real characters" existing in the current milieu. The setup is brilliantly done: Chris returns from the UK to a Singapore changed radically (at least for the gay community), and in revisiting old friends, finds himself embroiled in the politics of gay activists in the island, amidst a gathering movement for a repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code, an upcoming talk by an ex-gay ministry, and the sacking of a gay teacher from MOE.

The setup is well-done and mostly carefully constructed, garnering laughs from its skewering of current affairs. However, what follows feels more like a pleasant evening at the 4th National Bolshevik Theatre for the People. Audiences will find themselves lectured at by several characters serving as mouthpieces for various ideological positions within the community - all shouting at each other. One must have a great reserve of patience to sit through the laborious and lengthy speeches, all telegraphed beforehand so you know when it's coming. One must have a great deal of curiosity for Singapore's gay politics to stomach through a Communist purge style denunciation of the class traitors, the fifth columns within the community. And above all, one must have a great deal of tolerance and forbearance for the out-of-control ranting and constant references to gay teachers sacked by MOE.

Well, you know what they say when art imitates life, but I'm very curious to know how Act 2 of ABV3 could have turned out if Alfian bin Sa'at had not had his unfortunate run-in with the Ministry of Education. Surely, a playwright who has more than 15 years of writing experience can do far better than the second act of ABV3.

The Bride rolls on the floor, at times laughing, at times sobbing

Looking at both acts, one realises that ABV3 is afflicted with the same problems as most of Alfian bin Sa'at's plays - often the latter halves fail to match the first halves, in terms of coherence as well as quality. Often, the two halves are more like 2 self-contained plays, conceptually complete in themselves. Now, there are 2 things I don't get in the play - two things that illustrate Alfian's continuing problems with the 2-act structure:

1. Act 1 ended with the muse revealing himself to be Chris, and inviting the Author to hop into Act 2 with him, to find out what happens to his characters after more than 10 years.
A. Where is the Author in Act 2?
B. Why, if Act 1 allows the Muse to deconstruct, comment on, and at times poke gentle fun at the self-seriousness and naivete of the Author and Peculiar Chris, does Act 2 not extend the same self-reflexivity?

2. Why does the play end with the Muse asking the Author how things will turn out in the end, when Act 1 ended with the Muse inviting to show the Author how things turn out in 10 years?

"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you." The Bride whispers this gratefully between her tears and laughter

Let me make it clear that it is possible to like Asian Boys Vol. 3. It's a good play to watch if you haven't been exposed to the theatre, or if you're a gay person seeking some form of self-validation through the gay play, through community theatre. And even if you're not that way, Act 1 of ABV3 is probably one of the best postmodern adaptations ever attempted in Singapore theatre - it is far more sincere and authentic than certain other postmodern plays like the "Amazing Asia" production of Lear, for example. It's a pity that the level of invective in Act 2 may well de-endear any audience to the homosexual cause, and for queer people who are more comfortable in their skins, the artistic shortcomings of this play will be what they'd latch onto, instead of the fact that it's a gay play.

The Summary

Asian Boys Vol. 3, as a gay play and a piece of politicised community theatre, can only find justification for its existence from closetted and newly-out gay people who need to find justification for their existence from the play. There is something off-putting about the strident politics of this play - from its fast and loose attacks at the evil oppressive government1, the class traitors, the fifth columns, and the almost Marxist project of creating class consciousness: that gay people must act as a class-for-itself, and stop existing as a class-in-itself.

The disconcerting thing is how ABV3 leaves no room - no, glosses over entirely the existence of well-adjusted gay people who reject both a life spent in local gay activism and a life spent in clubs and saunas. In the universe of Asian Boys, in the politics of Alfian bin Sa'at, you cannot exist, you do not exist.

1. References were made in Act 2 to the police raids of gay saunas. The truth is, gay saunas are a legitimate business in Singapore and have been allowed to operate unmolested for much of their existence. There has been a grand total of 1 drug bust at a sauna. Once every 2 or 3 years following lurid sauna exposes by The New Paper, the police feel obliged to make general and cursory inspections - to check for alcohol licenses and serving of underaged customers. That hardly qualifies as a "raid", and this frequency hardly qualifies as a pattern of oppression. One could argue artistic license - except when this is a community play.


Anonymous said...

But it's precisely what you have to expect when people subordinate their art to a "cause", rather than sublimate their personal desires and passions to their art.

The net result is "art" that only a very small group of "enlightened" people can appreciate.

Kind of like the Emperor's new clothes.

Anonymous said...

What to do. Alfian has a history of using the theatre as his means of public masturbation.

Mozart and Shakespeare believed in serving their muse, and art flowed from them to enrich the world.

Alfian appears to believe his muse exists to serve him, and and his art to enrich himself.

Remember - if one doesn't like Alfian's work, one is either malicious or stupid, or both. It matters not, and indeed, a hinderance to appreciation of the freshness and uniqueness of his work, if one has been acquainted with literature and theatre for a long time. Alfian prefers and values the adoration of young minds unsullied by prior experience of theatre and literature, without such artificial and subjective constructs of expectation as quality, subtlety, or standards.

Nevertheless, one ought not be too harsh. The play is a sterling work, considering the playwright is a man of no great education, though learned in many ways.