Review of Unleashed! The Woman Before

Title of performance: Unleashed! The Woman Before

Theatre Company: Part of the LASALLE show 2013

Date of performance: 9 April 2013

Performance venue: Creative Cube, LASALLE College of the arts

A suspenseful 75-minute long play written by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig about the disintegration of memory and the melodramatic lives of 5 characters, was recently showcased at the Creative Cube venue in LASALLE College of the Arts. The play was part of the LASALLE show 2013 and directed by final year theatre and performance student Cherilyn Woo.

The performance area was unembellished, and ambient music interspersed with cricket-sounds played in the background as the audience filed in. The first thing that met the gaze of the audience was the shrink-wrapped partitions that bordered the two seating areas perpendicular to each other in the Cube. Cardboard boxes were carefully strewn across the stage, and 4 irregularly-shaped wooden cupboards were placed against the other walls of the venue.

The first character the audience saw was the narrator Tina played by Jean Toh, whose presence chilled the air as she glided across the second level of the Cube on what looked like the second story of a power plant. She perched atop a seat and stared at the scene below, as the ambient music faded out.

The audience, together with Tina, soon observed a domestic quarrel, where an enraged wife Claudia had slapped her husband Frank of 19 years, for suspicions that he was involved with another woman.  The altercation was prompted when a woman involved with Frank 24 years ago, Romy, unexpectedly turned up at the couple’s doorstep proclaiming that Frank still loved her. The characters stepped in and out of the wooden cupboards, which were supposed to be the rooms in the house that the couple was moving out of.

Frank managed to clear up the misunderstanding swiftly and chased Romy away, where she disappeared that moment into a cupboard which doubled up as the front door. But Frank and Claudia’s son, Andi, soon came running in with the unconscious Romy in his arms, panicking that he had killed her. He recounted that he and his girlfriend Tina were standing at the top of the fictional river bank and throwing stones at people indiscriminately, when one hit Romy.

The rest of the events made the play accelerate in eeriness as the recuperating Romy worked her way to destroy the family and stake ownership on Frank. She slept with Andi, killed him by suffocating him with a plastic bag, and neatly packed his body away into a cardboard box. Romy almost managed to wrestle Frank away from Claudia, but walks away from him after she realizes that Frank has forgotten most of his time with her, and is using her just to escape from his stale marriage. The play ended on a horrific note, where Frank discovers Andi’s body and Claudia discovers the gift that Romy left for Frank, which spontaneously combusts and burns her alive.

The overall rhythm of the play had an unrelenting tempo which was gripping. The theme of disintegration and distortion of memory was skillfully enmeshed in the various devices that the playwright wrote into the play, one of which was the time-switches. This fragmentation of the story saw one part of the scene being played out, which continued on to a freeze-frame and rewind by the actors and actresses to a few moments before that scene took place. This was accompanied by sounds of a videotape rewinding and the dimming of stage lights. The actors and actresses carried out the time-switches with finesse and it provided a very cinematographic feel to the production.

The time-switches, along with the set design, drove home the idea that memory can sometimes be compartmentalized, blanked out, and juxtaposed with reality. Frank made declarations of endless love with Romy which he can barely recall after 24 years. Andi and Tina, madly in love, physically tried to draw “tags” on everything they see so they can make an imprint that they were there. But memory, even of moments before, is capricious, and Andi proves to be easily seducible by Romy.

Dialogue was terse and direct, but full of meaning. In one climactic scene representing the dissolution of their marriage, Frank tells Claudia: “You’re old, clapped out, and ugly.” Claudia responds with emotion welling inside of her, “You just don’t say that, not after 19 years of marriage, not after they raised your child. You just don’t say that to anyone. ”

Timothy Nga as Frank and Sharda Harrison as Claudia played off each other’s energies to a good portrayal of a couple worn with the tedium of a long marriage. Jean Toh was notable as Tina because she pulled off long monologues which heightened the air of suspense. But Farez Najid’s portrayal of Andi did not match the intensity of the other actors and actresses, and Zelda Tatiana Ng as Romy, played the character as less unhinged than what could have been.

Parts of the plot were baffling due to the leaps in logic in the story. I suspect these were to do with the metaphors that Schimmelpfennig had written into the play, when he made his characters  throw stones at strangers and pick up stones with holes in them “to see the future and look back into the past”.  The play also had touches of senseless brutality and violence toward the end, when  Romy managed to single-handedly destroy an entire family.

There was definitely talent in Cherilyn Woo’s direction and in the production team, as they capitalized on the short length of the play and the unique limitations of the venue, to bring about a very emotional and dark production. The acting of the seasoned veterans was polished and there were some very nice finishing touches to the play that made for certain enthralling moments, which includes the time-switches. The resolution of the play taught us how an obsession with one fragmented and twisted memory can wreak havoc in our lives and those of others.

Unleashed! The Woman Before played at LASALLE College of the Arts, Creative Cube, from 9 April 2013 – 11 April 2013.

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