Life! Theatre Award nominees for Best Actor are three heavyweights and one freshman

This year's Best Actor category is made up of three heavyweights - Adrian Pang, Oliver Chong and Peter Sau - who have 24 Life! Theatre Award nominations between them, and first-time nominee Sugie Phua.

Pang's 12th acting nomination is for Pangdemonium's Frozen, in which he plays a serial killer and paedophile.

Chong and Sau are both up for Nine Years Theatre's Art, in which a trio of friends squabble over the artistic value of a 200,000 franc white-on-white canvas work.

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Phua, who rose to fame as a finalist on talent competition Project SuperStar in 2005, is nominated for his turn as monkey god Wukong, in Wild Rice's pantomime Monkey Goes West.

The award, among others, will be given out on Monday at the 15th M1-The Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards ceremony, an invitation-only event at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

lting@sph.com.sg

Go to www.straitstimes.com/life-theatre-awards-2015 for the complete list of this year's nominees and full coverage of the awards.


Sugie Phua

Nominated for: Wukong in Monkey Goes West by Wild Rice

Previous nominations: None

When Phua, 33, was offered the role of Wukong in Wild Rice's pantomime Monkey Goes West, he almost turned it down.

"There was a worry that my lack of martial arts training would hinder my portrayal of the skilful monkey god, and also, English is not my first language," he says.

He rose to fame as a finalist on the Mandarin singing talent competition Project SuperStar 2 in 2005 and since then has been taking hosting and acting gigs on TV's Channel U.

He is also no stranger to the stage, having starred in The Theatre Practice's Mandarin musicals Liao Zhai Rocks! in 2010 and Lao Jiu in 2012.

Despite the initial apprehension because of the language barrier, he is glad to have taken on the English-language role of Wukong, writer Alfian Sa'at's localised take on the monkey god of the Chinese folk tale Journey To The West.

The highlight for the actor was that "I get to be mischievous during the show, and I had a great experience monkeying around with a fantastic group of artists and performers". They include Siti Khalijah Zainal, who is up for a Best Supporting Actress nomination at this year's awards.

In Monkey Goes West, Phua was a wonderful physical presence, communicating through a twitch of the head, or a cocked eyebrow.

He says that to develop the character's physical quirks, he referenced the gestures and expressions of China actor Liu Xiao Ling Tong, who starred in the classic 1986 series Journey To The West on Chinese television.

Movement choreographer for the pantomime Gordon Choy, who has himself played Sun Wukong in several Chinese opera productions, also helped Phua to refine his actions.

The bachelor says: "The embodiment and personification of this role calls for swiftness and flow in the stunts, like cart-wheeling, somersaulting and rod twirling. So an immense amount of repetition and practice during rehearsals, and guidance from master Gordon, helped to shape and create the monkey I was."

Oliver Chong

Nominated for: Yvan in Art by Nine Years Theatre

Previous nominations: Eleven in total, including Best Set Design for Twisted (2005) by The Finger Players, Best Director for I'm Just A Piano Teacher (2006) by The Finger Players, Best Ensemble for Rashomon (2009) by The Theatre Practice, Best Actor in Invisibility/Breathing (2010) by Cake Theatrical Productions and Best Original Script for Roots (2012) by The Finger Players

Previous wins: Best Original Script for Roots (2012) by The Finger Players

When asked whether he is like his character in Art, a French-to-Mandarin translation of Yasmina Reza's play of the same title, Chong, 37, laughs.

In the Nine Years Theatre production, he plays Yvan, an easily swayed, happy- go-lucky guy who is caught in a fierce war of opinions between two friends over the artistic value of a white-on-white canvas.

"I guess there must be some part of him that's in me. It was quite easy to find him."

Which part? "The loser part," says Chong with a laugh.

He is certainly not a loser, having racked up 11 Life! Theatre Award nominations, for everything from set design to directing. The multi- talented practitioner's last acting nomination was in 2013 for his autobiographical play Roots, for which he won Best Original Script.

Unlike his fellow nominee in the category, Peter Sau, who played bristly, hot-headed Marc in the same play, Chong's approach to preparing for the role was more relaxed.

"Well, I didn't actually do things to prepare for the role, other than memorising my script and understanding the character," he says.

Whatever he did though, it certainly worked. Life! theatre critic Corrie Tan wrote: "Chong is a hoot as the hapless Yvan with some virtuoso ranting thrown in for good measure."

When speaking to the actor, it is also hard not to be infected by his enthusiasm for his character, who is the clown of the group.

Chong, who is married with no children, says: "I love him because I find the character quite cute. He also has a few long chunks of monologue that were very fun for me to play with."

Adrian Pang

Nominated for: Ralph in Frozen by Pangdemonium

Previous nominations: Eleven, including Best Supporting Actor in Forbidden City (2002) by Singapore Repertory Theatre, Best Actor for The Pillowman (2008) by Singapore Repertory Theatre, Best Actor in Swimming With Sharks (2012) by Pangdemonium, and Best Actor for Next To Normal (2013) by Pangdemonium

Previous wins: Best Actor for The Dresser (2006) by Singapore Repertory Theatre, Best Actor for Much Ado About Nothing (2009) by Singapore Repertory Theatre, Best Actor for Rabbit Hole (2013) by Pangdemonium

Throughout his illustrious acting career, Pang, 49, has played some pretty unpleasant characters.

Among them are a nasty, abusive boss (Swimming With Sharks), a fratricidal writer accused of inspiring the murders of young children (The Pillowman) and a scheming, manipulative prince (Forbidden City).

But the role he was nominated for this year, Ralph in Pangdemonium's Frozen, is scraping rock bottom. A paedophile and serial killer, Ralph is guilty of heinous crimes that incite revulsion in any human.

That was Pang's first reaction too. "The idea of children being physically and sexually preyed on is the most distressing and disturbing for any sane person, but as a father, I can honestly say it is every parent's most horrific nightmare."

His two children, Xander and Zachary, are 13 and 14.

When reading the script, Pang did not even think about taking on the role, but the play's director and his wife, Tracie, "in her infinite wisdom, had other ideas. She had a hard time convincing me to take on the role, but at the end of the day, she's the boss".

To prepare for the role, he conducted research on serial killers and sexual predators such as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Fred West, by reading news reports, psychological analyses and watching television interviews with the killers themselves.

In addition, playwright Bryony Lavery based the character of Ralph on a real-life Scottish paedophile and serial killer called Robert Black, who raped and killed young girls in Britain over a period of 20 years, and was finally arrested in 1990.

Pang says: "Robert Black is the subject of the book The Murder Of Childhood by Ray Wyre and Tim Tate. This book was a very tough read because of the graphic content, but proved to be vital in my research."

While it is easy to condemn Ralph, the actor adds a caveat: "He was a man who knew that what he did was wrong. In Robert Black's first meeting with his psychologist, he asked: 'Am I mad, or am I evil?'.

"At the end of the day, the abiding feeling I had playing this wretched soul was that this was such a sad, sickening waste of human life."

Peter Sau

Nominated for: Marc in Art by Nine Years Theatre

Previous nominations: Best Actor for House Of Sins (2008) by Drama Box and Best Ensemble for The Performance (2010) by Cake Theatrical Productions

Previous wins: Best Ensemble for The Performance (2010) by Cake Theatrical Productions

To prepare for his role as Marc in Nine Years Theatre's Art, Sau, 39, headed to the museums.

His character in this Mandarin adaptation of Yasmina Reza's French play is a practical, realistic aeronautical engineer who thinks little of his friend's new artistic purchase, a white-on-white canvas, and does not hesitate to make his opinions known.

On his museum trips, Sau says: "I scored the artworks from amazing to average to atrocious with, of course, the most mainstream and pragmatic perspective of Marc."

A recipient of the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award, the bilingual Sau is known as both a character and ensemble actor, versed in text-based as well as physical performance styles.

In Art, his staunchly strident Marc is the foil to Oliver Chong's happy-go-lucky and easily swayed Yvan, whose performance was also nominated in the same category.

Sau, who is single, says of his character: "He is an erratic character, who is easily irritable. I had to discover the rationale for his frequent outbursts to avoid superficial characterisation."

As an actor, he also enjoyed the contradictions and the complexity of Marc.

"He has a huge ego and uses strong words to demonstrate his love towards people he cares for, yet he has to learn to be a 'hypocrite' to avoid losing his most cherished friendship.

"For an actor, this sort of dilemma is always immensely pleasurable to embody."