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20 Nov 2008

Death and dancing

Buds Theatre Company brings us a funny, uplifting play about a gay man and a lesbian woman, to be performed stand-up comedy style at Play Bar and Club, Singapore, this weekend, 20-23 November 2008.

God knows, there've been a hell of a lot of gay plays and lesbian plays in Singapore. What's odd, however, is that very few of these shows have given gay men and lesbians anything resembling equal attention - they're all catering almost exclusively to a crowd of boys who love cock or a gang of girls who love boobies.

So I'm pretty intrigued by the fact that Buds Theatre Company is staging Death and Dancing. It's a play about two friends named Max and Max, a gay man and a lesbian woman, both struggling to define themselves against society's expectations. Playing the two characters are Benjamin Wong (last seen in the much more children's pantomime Wizard of Oz) and Rebecca Lee (recently in To Kill A Mockingbird). And before you ask, the answer's yes: they will be taking their clothes off.

Death and Dancing first emerged in 1992 as a fringe theatre hit in the UK. It's created and originally performed by award-winning British writer and comedian Claire Dowie (who was lesbian herself when she wrote the play, but has since married a man and had kids, thus proving once again that I'll never understand women).

Dowie's pretty pleased that the play's finally going to have its Asia premiere in Singapore. "I hope that Death and Dancing helps to push the boundaries of sexual politics... (with humour of course). And it will be such a success that I will be invited to perform there myself in the not too distant future!" she tells me over e-mail.

By coincidence, the director's another woman named Claire D - Claire Devine, who's become a stalwart of the local theatre scene since coming here from Britain in 1996. She's the founder of Buds Theatre Company, which provides free and low-cost theatre training for young people as well as staging professional-level productions. As an actress, you might've seen her playing an American artist in the musical Forbidden City, or as a lesbian lawyer in Eleanor Wong's trilogy of plays, Invitation to Treat.

"I love Claire Dowie's plays; all her work," Devine tells me in our interview. "I think this is the only play that I really love, that I genuinely love; that really resonates with everything I believe."

Wow, I say. The only play you love? What about Shakespeare?

She laughs. "Sorry about it, Shakey," she says.

She first read Dowie years ago, when one of her drama students brought an extract into class. Since then she's been hooked. Death and Dancing, she feels, is particularly meaningful in Singapore because it's all about young people who're trying - and sometimes not daring - to follow their hearts.

"It's about being stuck in stereotype, being labeled and imprisoned in society and not being given our own choices a lot of the time. We're constantly needing or expecting approval for the choices we make, and a lot of the time they're not the right choices for us. And a lot of people get stuck in a choice they didn't want," she explains.

On their part, actors Wong and Lee say they've had a real thrill working with the material. Wong found it an incredible challenge to embrace his character, who experiences a moment of sexual liberation in university, then proceeds to make dangerously "conservative" choices as he grows older.

"As an actor, you don't want to judge the character you're playing," he says. "His choices in life are very questionable, and yet so obviously true." Lee, meanwhile, gets to play a woman who's very ballsy and very rebellious - and at the same time very lonely.

Devine says she's had to tweak the script ever so slightly so it's not as specifically British as it used to be. Still, she believes that the issues of the play are more relevant than ever now, in a Singapore that's experienced "a revolution", an explosion in gay culture over the last five to ten years.

One sign of the times may be that the censorship board has had no objection to the play's political edge, although there's a fair bit of blaming the government for not listening to queer people's wants.
"Either they didn't get the play, or they're lightening up a bit," Devine jokes. "The only thing they were worried about was the nudity."

Female Max was supposed to have a topless scene, she says, and the actress was completely comfortable with the idea. Unfortunately, the scene was meant to illustrate how the character is flat-chested, and Rebecca Lee has huge breasts - one of the rather few Singapore actresses with such a fortunate complaint.

So there'll be no female nudity, but not to worry. "We get to see Ben naked, with just his underwear on, and he's got a mighty fit body! And I did think about that when I was casting him; his sex appeal."

Aside from the skin, this'll be a show with a difference in other ways. It's performed as stand-up theatre, a dramatic form that Dowie invented, drawing on her training as a stand-up comedian. Stand-up theatre depends a lot on interaction, so actors have to be constantly engaged with the audience rather than simply being re-enacting scenes.

Devine's also decided to stage Death and Dancing at Play Bar and Club, where she likes to have a drink sometimes - "It's one of those places in Singapore where people can be who they want to be," she says.

She made the decision partly because she loves site-specific work, and partly because it'll give the stand-up that much more energy. "You should be able to sit and relax during theatre, to buy a drink," she says. "And I do want the audience to heckle and join in! Although the actors are little scared of that right now..." she laughs.

Nerves aside, she says, when she's listening to the lines in rehearsal, she realises how much the words describe people she knows who're struggling with their identities and sexualities, simply because they don't believe they have a choice. This play has a message, and she wants it to change lives.

"Maybe if one person walks away and thinks, well, I have the right to be gay or lesbian or be a lawyer instead of a doctor," she tells me, "then if just one person feels that, then I think the play will have been a success."

Death and Dancing will be performed by Buds Theatre Company at Play Club, 21 Tanjong Pagar Road, at 8pm from Thursday to Sunday, Nov 20 to 23. Tickets are available at http://www.centre-stage.com/dnd.

Buds Youth Theatre also provides theatre training every Sunday for those aged 13-25 - the last sessions this year are Nov 30, Dec 7 and 14 at the Substation Dance Studio. Sessions are either free or cost a Dollar A Session for six-week courses.


Reader's Comments

1. 2008-11-20 22:18  
Cool!!! Nice party. But don be too egregious till attracting the police come to raid.
2. 2008-11-20 22:31  
3. 2008-11-21 12:43  
How apt, death and dancing definitely go hand in hand!
4. 2008-11-24 18:38  
'Female Max was supposed to have a topless scene, she says, and the actress was completely comfortable with the idea. Unfortunately, the scene was meant to illustrate how the character is flat-chested, and Rebecca Lee has huge breasts - one of the rather few Singapore actresses with such a fortunate complaint.'

i don't think theatre-goers have problems with the suspension of disbelief ..really, they shouldn't feel the need to limit themselves to the scripts too strictly ;-)
5. 2008-11-24 21:49  
good strong performances and rebecca was definitely the star of the show! her ease in the role contrasted with the hackneyed portrayal of a gay man. I felt that the play could have ended at the first half rather than continuing through the second half with the obvious pedagogical denouement. well done and here is wishing the theatre bigger and brighter things for the future. Cheers!

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