Picture by Checkpoint Theatre
4th April 2006, 8 pm, Esplanade Theatre Studio
By Richard Chua
The story started with a duet of lines between Oscar (performed by Koey Foo) and Ming(performed by Phin Wong), a dialogue that is familiar to all gay people. 2 gay lovers charting their 4 year history in a relationship, from days of courtship till the time Oscar decides to break up with Ming after being diagnosed with HIV. As the act moves on, Oscar joins a support group and befriends Daniel, a stereotypical Chinese boy studying business at Harvard. Ming, however, finds new love with his Caucasian headwaiter lover, Robert, in LA. Then later, their relationships turn sour, and they can’t seem to replace their current love interests with the old one. Daniel suffers being Oscar’s substitute for Ming, while Robert trying to make sense of what relationship is when Ming asks that both of them see other people while they are together.
The story premise lays the very foundation for a gay melodrama. It also provides a structure for complex character work. Chay Yew crafted a complex set of relationships between them, interlacing the text with issues relating to racism, social prejudice, cultural differences, sexual politics etc. These issues take their toil on these characters. He also moulded the characters into roles any actor would ever want to play in theatre, as it is a good script that provides a diverse range of characters with deep and conflicting personalities.
But I think a gay melodrama is not exactly what Chay Yew has in mind, because he practically created a utopian mirage of a wonderful gay relationship. A Language of their Own could very well be a satire, but to those who watched the performance in the same theatre with me do not seem to think so. I think they would rather settle for the former, as it doesn’t require any critical self-reflection.
The script, no doubt, made Casey Lim’s job much easier in the theatre. I am glad Casey Lim did not direct it in a straightforward manner and pander it to the tastelessness of gay people. The script does not provide any latitude for that, anyway. The role of any good director would be to accentuate the nuances in a script and bring them to the fore, providing the audiences with his/her unique perspectives and responses to the play. Casey Lim and Ken Ikeda made a great team. Ken Ikeda’s lights supported Casey Lim’s direction with specific well-textured performance spaces, while the director concentrated on anchoring the actors down in these specific performance spaces. Casey Lim also created some scenes of great theatrical effect; one of which is when Ming visits the bathhouse for a night of wild sex, with Oscar masturbating quietly on the side, moaning as Ming penetrates the other. It was also reassuring to see silences being put to good use in this play, a positive change from a recent Chinese production I caught at Stamford Arts Centre days ago.
Phin Wong as Ming was not well liked on the outset, but it got better as it went along. He began his performance from a shaky start. But, it was honesty that eased him into the role comfortably, and make Phin Wong’s character of Ming a likeable one. Every occasional tantrum he makes stirs any lover’s heart. To play Ming is to be simple, with subtle jolts of liveliness in between. His line, “Why can’t you use simple words, you always complicate…” should be the main point of departure of Ming’s journey.
This is one character that doesn’t lend itself to easy portrayal too, because over-playing it will result in waking a loud drama queen. In addition, Ming is an emotional roller coaster. This was evident when he left Oscar for Robert. Phin Wong was weak in portraying the bubbly nature of Ming, but was effective in drawing out the contradictions within the character. This was especially apparent on many different occasions in the play. Ming could also be played as an uplifting character, with his freedom of choice in looking for love, someone that doesn’t need “to lie to his folks about having no time to date because he is busy at work.” – as his line in the play says it all.
Koey Foo, on the other hand, seems to have adopted a more straightforward rendition of Oscar with a slightly different take. He portrayed Oscar as a straight-laced Asian gay man by deliberately slowing down the delivery of lines instead of using his denial as a gay man as the main motivation, which could be better. It was too convenient a way that will result in crafting a boring character than to rightfully make a repressed one. But, Koey Foo’s Oscar did provide a strong counterpoint for Ming to shine, a good contrast that provides a platform for a good emotional tussle.
Performing Chay Yew’s script is difficult as it is full of stereotypes, and he undermines them by revealing the lives of gay Asian men – simply just being Asian, or the lack thereof. Ming is his critique. He represents countless gay Asian men around the world, where love seems to be the only important element in their lives, or the only element that defines their existence. What I like about the play is Chay Yew’s insistence to not make the script sound like a whiny rant of a drama queen, but to say what hasn’t been said by the characters. That gave Phin Wong challenge as he threaded on thin lines to bring the subtext to the surface, especially the inner struggles between responsibility and irresponsibility. It is indeed a pleasure to watch Phin Wong’s performance as Ming, as he paced the moments well, although slipping occasionally into bouts of emotions that rush the scene and not letting audiences mull over what has been said.
Well, these are small problems I could put up with.
I loved him when Ming thanked God for his negative test result, something Oscar felt betrayed to, as it revealed lots about relationships nowadays. Ming uttered those words without realising the consequences that came with it. Phin Wong grabbed it at its essence, showing that in any love relationship, love is not at all altruistic. Love is built on reality. In this case, it is about survival more than anything else. This will inevitably bring about a debate on the existence of true love in this world.
To me, there isn’t any. But, there is real love. Love is real when lovers are physically in love, or in the sense that each and everyone of them is clear that he/she is in fact in love with someone. Oscar and Ming are not true lovers, as with all gay relationships. But, their relationship is real for sure. This is one area Chay Yew has not fully explored in the script.
This review is definitely not a space for this discourse, but it could be used as extended performance possibilities for Phin Wong and Koey Foo. It was a pity Koey Foo chose to deliver the lines in a comfortable pace for the audiences, and not playing the character with sufficient internal turmoil in the first two scenes of the play. Surprisingly, it picked up when the party scene began. The transition was rough and it did hamper the emotional build-up of the character. In general, both Phin Wong and Koey Foo showed the characters’ fragility to their fullest, which mattered most in the play really.
Communicating to the audience complex elements in every human character is an actor’s job in connecting with people. Phin Wong and Koey Foo are examples of actors who could be great character performers. If an actor were able to inhabit the character fully within him, then it would be a success. Phin Wong was near to that in the performance.
Ming is full of contradictions, and this character opens itself up for public judgement, so as Phin Wong as the performer. Surprisingly, I can’t seem to pinpoint the difference between the two. The contradictions seemed to be both Ming and Phin Wong’s. Phin Wong’s greatest scene was probably the one when he, as Ming, had a showdown with Robert, having discovered a Vietnamese boy in the very bed they had sex in. The demand he levied on Robert was in total contradiction with what he had done in the bathhouse. Ming actually believed that is what love is. This scene questions the very act of responsibility a lover has to another. Not to mention, the threat the authentic Vietnamese boy has on Ming, a not-so-real American born “Chinese”. Public judgements on the character aside, Phin Wong did deliver a searing performance that managed Ming’s irrational behaviour at an engaging level. His performance also brought out the Robert’s need for attention; for the Vietnamese boy actually talked to him and not Ming!
Casey Lim’s direction, to a great extent, helped the audiences to focus their energies on many important scenes. Besides the bathhouse scene I mentioned earlier, Oscar’s little song of “I love you” to Daniel and his monologue at the deathbed are scenes worth mentioning too.
The first scene with Daniel (played by Peter Sau) was especially moving as it was the only time delusion served best when life seemed to be moving in opposite directions against the character’s wishes. Temporary fixes such as having people saying “I love you” to you are like painkillers to a seemingly unfulfilled life. As much as I would want Koey Foo to pace his [I love you](s) in a more poignant manner, I was moved by Peter Sau’s performance in expressing Daniel’s conviction that he is “in love”.
The other, on Oscar’s deathbed, the scene should not serve only as just a near end point to the play. It should be an emancipating experience for Oscar, for having a final chance to release himself from repression. To play Oscar straight-off as an AIDS patient is to totally miss the point – where repression is a illness far more serious than HIV-AIDS, the former a suffering for life, and latter a temporary one. Repression also results in emotional pain that will cause a lack of physical well being, while HIV-AIDS is just purely physical pain. Given a choice, I would go for something that could totally free a human being. Oscar should be freed from the shackles of the so-called “Asian Values”. Ming’s line- “You are Chinese. You are supposed to be bad in expressing yourself.” – comes strongly as a reference point. Oscar should try to fully express himself. I am glad he did, especially when he feels he is flying, the moment he appreciates living. Sadly, only in death that usually a person appreciates living nowadays. My only gripe was that Koey Foo rushed the scene a little bit. If the lines could be delivered moderately, it would definitely put more weight in any audience’s heart.
Peter Sau’s Daniel is a tower of strength in the play. He is an independent gay man who is ready to accept what life has given him, including HIV-AIDS. Apart from Peter Sau’s language, which seems to separate the character from the rest of the cast, the performance was a gem. Daniel has a personality close to Oscar’s, more goals oriented and self-sufficient. Peter Sau kept to his role as a supporting cast well, showing the subtle contrasts between Oscar and Daniel. This provided the opportunity for Oscar to realise that his seemingly “Mr Right” does not fulfil him as much as Ming did, although Daniel is more independent. These intricate moments between them are difficult to navigate, and Peter Sau, in all his adroitness in bringing out the nuances, has it all controlled without compromising on Daniel’s own unique personality.
As with any formal structure in drama, there is always a character that provides a charismatic boost. Daniel serves this function well. He is also a person everyone aspires to be when fighting against the odds to get the sense of living in life. Peter Sau played the role to great effect. What’s lacking perhaps is the space to provide more downsides for the character. But, that’s my own preference, of course. Daniel is originally a character that does not enter into the scene from the outset, but Casey Lim placed Peter Sau in the upper top right of the stage all the same, forcing Daniel into the space, looking back at his seemingly unfulfilled journey as Oscar’s love interest. The most powerful scene Peter Sau delivered was in fact a wordless one – the standoff between Ming and Daniel at the end. Phin Wong and Peter Sau – Ming and Daniel – came into each other’s path for the first time in Oscar’s life, or rather the end of Oscar’s life. That provided an excellent platform for Daniel’s rant against Ming, which followed shortly afterwards.
Most people would think Ming is someone who is totally unfeeling and emotionless as he reacted coldly to Oscar’s death, but it also made Daniel’s accusations stronger and more irrational, a trait Ming shares as well. These ironies are poignant moments.
What makes Ming a credible character is his total senseless way of living life, something Phin Wong has performed well. This is especially telling in his scene with Robert when he needed love and concern out of insecurity more than anything else. Robert is no one better at love anyway. Mark Waite gave a performance that likens any “red-neck” Caucasian. Lines were not strong as they were delivered with skill rather than conviction. There was also a lack of stage presence. As much as I would want share a personal space with Robert, he is one character that doesn’t seem to provide any strong emotional connection with the audience. It is one character that could be easily forgotten, but not for his poem to Ming at the end.
Unfortunately, Mark did not bring the lines to its full effect. Robert’s life could well be summarised in that few lines. Each sentence of Robert’s “poem” reflects the stages of a couple’s love language – the process of teaching each other their language, trying to adapt to it, then finally realising that languages are different. Languages are not simple after all. This could serve as an effective juxtaposition with Ming’s nature to desire things to be said in simple languages.
Language is most powerful when it drops its social agenda and deals with the basics of finding one’s identity under the pressures of assimilation, tradition and love. Chay Yew’s script was laced with such simplicity, paring down to the basics. Mark Waite should exercise more sensitivity to these intricacies when inhabiting the character of Robert.
So, is Chay Yew trying to create a sad gay love story? I don’t think so. Conversely, I think he has created a perfect gay love story. Although, it is a story that does not go with the normal flow of a typical gay lifestyle – finding a good boyfriend with good body and looks, and most important of all, to love them fully – but it does provide a truthful view to a love story that illustrates the irrationality of love through Ming, strength to face up to life through Daniel, complexity of language of love through Robert, and most of all, to be totally free through Oscar.
This play was written 10 years ago. It stood the test of time. But, in this present day, is it still relevant? I think so. Gay issues have not changed radically in the past ten years, as so I think. Discrimination and stigmatisation exist alongside the gay community as society starts to open up for greater tolerance, not acceptance. But, these are considered secondary issues to one that needs immediate address – what’s love in the gay community. Looking for love in the gay community has changed considerably in the past ten years, especially with greater use of the Internet, where personal ads serve as a main medium of mutual introduction. For good or for worse, gay people are moving behind computer screens with nicknames, a desire to be invisible and yet visible to other gay people in search for love. What’s it like to use words such as, “ I am simple guy and I want to look for another guy with a simple life,” as an introduction to a personal ad? – an irony where the search for someone simple by proclaiming to be simple is not exactly as simple as it seems, as it entails a desire and biasness in looking for someone likens to themselves. What’s the significance of gay love when it is so fragile when sex is aplenty? How do we go about finding real love and not the illusion of true love?
To find love is to exercise a choice, a choice of having sex with another to explore love, a choice of being with another in times of need, a choice of giving up another in one’s own sacrifice, and the list goes on. With every choice made, a price is paid. The true sense of being is to appreciate the price and move on to make another choice in life at another price.
– end –