Chronology on Death play is gentle with sensitivities

Two brothers (the younger one played by Chua Teck Yeo, above) tussle with the burial ritual of their father who was both a Taoist and a Muslim.
Two brothers (the younger one played by Chua Teck Yeo, above) tussle with the burial ritual of their father who was both a Taoist and a Muslim. PHOTO: M1 CHINESE THEATRE FESTIVAL

REVIEW / THEATRE

CHRONOLOGY ON DEATH/

approaching theatre

M1 CHINESE THEATRE FESTIVAL/

Thursday

Chronology On Death is a production that looks at the sombre issues of life, death and faith squarely in the eye and laughs gently at them.

The hour-long Mandarin play is a deeply humanistic piece that raises questions with no easy answers. It navigates the twin landmines of race and religion, guided with ease and sensitivity by its Taipei-based director, Koh Choon Eiow, who grew up an ethnic minority in his homeland of Malaysia.

The play chronicles how two brothers (played by Koh and fellow countryman Chua Teck Yeo) discover that their dead father, an erstwhile Taoist who worshipped many gods, registered with the state as a Muslim about 35 years ago.

A tussle ensues with the austere Islamic Bureau, which lays legal claim to the body of Hassan Tan Bin Abdullah, while the younger Tan insists on honouring their father as the late Tan Tua Yang.

Chronology echoes the context as well as the pathos and absurdist streak behind Kuo Pao Kun's classic 1984 monodrama The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole, in which a young man petitions a bureaucrat for a bigger land plot to bury his grandfather.

  • BOOK IT / CHRONOLOGY ON DEATH

    WHERE: Creative Cube, Lasalle College of the Arts

    WHEN: Saturday, 3 and 8pm; Sunday,3pm

    ADMISSION: $38 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or goto www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: In Mandarin with English surtitles.
    Restricted 18 rating for mature content and coarse language. Goto en.practice.org.sg/m1ctf2015/

Koh, through his characters, quietly challenges the significance ascribed to burial rites.

The Tans obsessively follow rituals to ensure their father's wishes are adhered to, only to realise he is long gone with the wind. Literally, in this case, as an attempt to bury him in a Chinese cemetery goes awry when the authorities intervene and the Tans escape with only corpse fragments.

During a pregnant pause amid the commotion, the younger Tan wonders aloud: "Do funerals serve the living or the dead?"

Such wry, eloquent observations keep the play from tipping over into pontification.

As the Tans sort through their grief, they piece together bits of their father through recollections. He watched passengers die on the harrowing journey to Singapore from China. He considered himself "a foster child of Guanyin", and loved to drink and eat pork.

That throws up another quandary - what defines a person's existence? Is it the intimate yet unreliable memories of those close to him? Or a state-sanctioned document that repudiates everything he stood for?

Noting a mole on his father's face, the elder Tan observes: "We lived together, but I never looked so closely at him. I never knew it was there."

Despite its thematic matter, Chronology is no dirge. Koh keeps the show's pacing tight, merging flashbacks with present-day scenes to maintain a dream- like quality.

The script sparkles with humorous but incisive commentary on Malaysian racial politics, though one wishes he had taken a lighter touch with the profanities.

The late Tan, we learn, applied to be a Muslim to expedite a mortgage application. Also commendable is the two- man duet of Koh and Chua, by turns energetic and graceful. One highlight was when they played a rotating cast of nosy relatives, providing levity and shining a light on their bitter resignation towards Malaysia's bumiputra policies.

Expectedly, the show ran into roadblocks in places like Beijing, where it was banned out of concern for religious sensitivities. Here, it was passed after six months of deliberation by the authorities and with the condition that it be accompanied by a post-show dialogue.

But they need not have worried. Chronology On Death does not seek to stoke religious tensions. It instead holds up a mirror to multi-cultural societies like ours and asks us to look past our ostensible differences. Such plays deserve to be seen and vigorously debated.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2015, with the headline 'Sensitive handling of racial, religious issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe