Mentally engaging work

Andrew Marko and Karen Tan in The Greatest Love Of All, one of four plays in State Of Mind.
Andrew Marko and Karen Tan in The Greatest Love Of All, one of four plays in State Of Mind.PHOTO: PLAYGROUND ENTERTAINMENT

REVIEW / THEATRE

STATE OF MIND

Playground Entertainment

Play Den, The Arts House/ Thursday

Actress Yeo Yann Yann gleefully rips up a room-length roll of white paper covered with scribblings.

It is a neat transition between two plays and a neat illustration of what State Of Mind does to the audience.

Playground Entertainment's sophomore production strips away pre-conceived notions about mental health issues and the kinds of stories these inspire on stage. This is no mean feat given that big-name troupe Pangdemonium staged two productions on depression and autism this year (The Effect and Falling) and Haresh Sharma's play about mental health issues, Off Centre, is a classic taught in schools.

This quartet of new 30-minute plays from four local playwrights provides fresh perspectives on well-trodden ground. The characters here are not defined solely by their illness. They are deeply appealing and intriguing people who just happen to have quirks built into their brains.

Director Thong Pei Qin and the crew led by production manager Muhammad Sufiyan and stage manager Ang Hwee Leng get full marks for turning the U-shape of the Play Den into an asset instead of a liability.

The sets are simple and multi- functional - two white trapeziums for multimedia projection, the occasional chair - while fluid blocking allows most members of the audience to feel included in the action.

In the first play, Dora Tan's Sadness Is The New Normal, Boon (Andrew Marko) moves around the white paper covering the stage, filling it with black sketches and scribbles. These act as visual props and also clues to the inner workings of his character's mind.

When he accepts a lighter shade - blue - from his therapist (Karen Tan), one has to heave a sigh of relief.

When Yeo joyfully rips up the paper to introduce the next play, The Weight Of Emptiness by Tan Suet Lee, it is both cathartic and frightening. The actress mounds the armfuls into heaps denoting the cluttered piles of useless objects in her character's home. Then she and actress Tan, burdened by slingbags - obvious baggage - struggle to move around the heaps, just as their daughter-mother characters struggle around the emotional and physical obstacles created by the mother's obsessive hoarding.

The two plays after the intermission have fewer visual tricks to hold the attention of the audience.

With character interaction the sole focus, Jean Tay's Skin Deep is the weakest of the quartet. Yeo is absolutely riveting as a mother desperate to engage with a daughter who cuts herself - delightfully competent newcomer Leianne Tan - but some clunky dialogue robs the relationship of realism.

The team is back to form in The Greatest Love Of All, written by Playground Entertainment's artistic director Jacke Chye.

Marko is a volunteer at a hospital where Karen Tan plays an aged, disabled woman convinced that she is singer Whitney Houston. Her rendition of Houston's power ballads in character takes the prize in an evening characterised by assured and powerful acting.

Playground Entertainment has been set up to help showcase lesser- known players in the Singapore theatre scene and State Of Mind proves these are names worth watching.

Lighting (Liu Yong Huay) is an essential, unobtrusive, mood-changing aid that focuses the audience's attention on the right character at the right time. Sound design (Aldon Chua) is particularly effective in Skin Deep and could have been broadened to include pre-show house music. Multimedia (Yusri Sapari) is the stand-out player. New characters are introduced and inner reflections made clear via video recordings of the onstage actors.

All told, the production values and script quality are such that one looks forward to next year's production from the troupe, intriguingly titled The Cheongsam Mafia.

•State Of Mind is sold out

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2016, with the headline 'Mentally engaging work'. Print Edition | Subscribe