Review of The Book of Living and Dying

Title of performance: The Book of Living and Dying

Theatre Company: The Finger Players in collaboration with Teatri Sbagliati

Date of performance: 6 July 2013, 3.00pm

Performance venue: Esplanade Theatre Studio

What a treat for me to go to another show in Esplanade’s 2013 The Studios series – I caught my favourite production of 2012, “Freud’s Last Session”, at the series last year. And this time, I was utterly blown away by The Book of Living and Dying by The Finger Players. 

The opening scenes of “The Book of Living and Dying” were breathtaking. An Italian tranvestite Martina (Antonio Ianniello) explains to adopted daughter Eve (Nambi E. Kelley) about her parentage in a roundabout fashion, just when a spinning universe burst into light and cut-out patterns shone on the walls. Eve doesn’t take “from the good soil” as an answer, nor buys that she was there from the beginning of the universe.

Soon enough, Eve leaves the nest and only returns when Martina tells her she has stomach cancer.  Eve brings her cat along, Meow Meow (Oliver Chong), who reacts strangely to Martina. A few parallel storylines then unfold, leading us to understand that Martina and Eve have been interlinked through all their past lives and the cat has been a witness to it all. Master and slave, soldier and comfort woman, now, mother and daughter.

Before the creation of this play, the entire company took a two-week trip to China to study Tibetan Buddhism under a monk in a monastery. It shows in the religious bent of the plot, largely about the cyclical nature of life and death, and steeped in questions about reincarnation. With such heavy subject-matter at hand, how did the production fare?

Under Chong Tze Chien’s careful direction, a stimulating and profound play was born, with every element of the play strong in its own right.

Against the backdrop of The Finger Player’s signature puppetry, a dying Martina literally unearths past mistakes through a chilling shadow-play of skeletons, trees and dinosaurs. She was a thief in her past lives, and her mistakes have come back to haunt her. The urgency of an impending death, strangely enough, helps the characters make sense of life. Eve confronts the questions of where she came from, and Martina’s inner conflict finally comes to a head when she admits the sins festering inside of her.

Flitting in between the mother and daughter story are a caricature of a Chinese doctor, Priest and Monk who serve as dots to connect the narrative, and also speed bumps in the fast-paced play.

As much as the work and process of the actors / co-playwrights impressed me, it was the attempt of the production to grapple with the hard questions that left the deepest impression. The play exuded honesty in portraying the struggle of humanity to understand each other, the world, death, and rebirth. The funny thing is that in the hodgepodge of philosophy and platitudes in the play, there was one single, running thread of clarity – the connectedness of human lives with each other and with the Universe.

The profundity of the play, unfortunately, was like a double-edged sword because there were so many ideas packed into the 90 minutes. It made it hard for a theatre-goer to keep up with the pace, if their minds lingered on the lines spoken the moment before.

The few flaws in the production did not detract from its depth and flow. The crowning jewel had to be the innovative use of chalk by the artists, who timed to perfection every symbolic outline and illustration on the floor and walls of the Theatre Studio, erasures included.  Drawings sometimes crossed scenes but this messiness added to the feeling of connectedness, surrounded by every overhanging note in the minor chord which Darren Ng (sound artist) played.

There was a certain resignation at the end of the play, but also a strange sense of grandeur, as death made way to life, and humanity was rendered helpless at the reinforced notion that humans cannot choose the consequences of their actions.

Overall, this thoughtful play definitely deserves a second or third watch, to fully chew on all that is within. But just watching it once is also enough to leave you in awe and wonder.

The Book of Living and Dying first played at the 2012 Singapore Arts Festival. It recently played at Esplanade Theatre Studio from 4 to 7 July 2013.

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