Tango a mesmeric showcase of talent

A family played by (from far left) Lim Kay Siu, Dylan Jenkins, Koh Boon Pin and Emil Marwa in Tango.
A family played by (from far left) Lim Kay Siu, Dylan Jenkins, Koh Boon Pin and Emil Marwa in Tango.PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN

A waitress who refuses to serve a gay family in this original play by home-grown playwright Joel Tan personifies society with its hypocrisy

REVIEW / THEATRE

TANGO

Pangdemonium!

Drama Centre/Last Saturday

Those who have long tasted success say that the secret is being true to themselves.

But what if being who you are offends society in general, which sees marriage and parenthood as the sole preserve of male-female couplings?

That is the thrust of Tango, an original play by home-grown playwright Joel Tan, whose work is the first such commission by Pangdemonium! and was three years in the making.

  • BOOK IT / TANGO

  • WHERE: Drama Centre, Level 3, National Library Board headquarters, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Till June 4, Tuesdays to Sundays, 8pm, with 3pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays

    ADMISSION: Only those aged 18 and older. Tickets from $25 to $65 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Tango takes its title from the children's 2005 book And Tango Makes Three, which is about two male penguins and their adopted chick. The book caused a kerfuffle here in July 2014, when the National Library Board (NLB) tried to pulp it in response to some readers' complaints.

In Tan's work, which has nothing to do with that NLB incident, society at its most fusty is personified by doughty Poh Lin (a heartrending Lok Meng Chue), a waitress who is all mother-hen bluster at Palace Kitchen restaurant.

She refuses to serve a family comprising two men, Kenneth Woon (Koh Boon Pin, in a superbly focused and calibrated turn) and Liam Butler (a nobly generous Emil Marwa), and their adopted son Jayden (Dylan Jenkins).

This rare nuclear family, based on real-life British-based spouses and parents Ed and Mark Koh-Waite, is in Singapore to care for Kenneth's stroke-weakened father Richard (Lim Kay Siu, as authentic as ever).

Poh Lin rails at her gay customers for being "not normal", not realising that her filial nephew and colleague Benmin (a rather earnest Benjamin Chow), whom she has raised since he was nine, is homosexual.

Mild-mannered Kenneth snaps when Poh Lin brands them "perverts", sending cutlery and crockery flying before storming off.

Kenneth and Liam's bid to make their home anew in Singapore is then thwarted when a video of "Palace Kitchengate" goes viral and spirals into a spirited rally at Hong Lim Park for and against homosexuality.

Irate at some rally-goers for calling his fathers "paedophiles", 12-year-old Jayden throws a punch at them and winds up with a black-and-blue face after being set upon by three men.

Tan balances all this drama beautifully in a pithy, pacy and elegant script, which is all the more persuasive because he takes digs, not stabs, at the many dilemmas between those who live as they please and others who are not pleased at how they live.

He achieves such balance by showing both sides to every predicament, tenderly stripping away layer upon layer of hypocrisy while leaving hard truths that stick in the craw.

The play's voice of reason is Kenneth and Liam's bosom buddy Elaine (Karen Tan, in a heartfelt performance of acute sensitivity), a lesbian who brushes off society's slights to reach out to Poh Lin, who has been fired for engulfing her employer in controversy.

When Poh Lin learns that Elaine is raising her daughter with another woman, she glosses over the very arrangement she considers perverted because she assumes women make better mothers than men.

Benmin and his lover Zul (a delightfully subtle Ruzaini Mazani) are at loggerheads because Benmin wants to stick by his gormless aunt and so refuses to rally alongside his lover for gay rights.

Kenneth is initially all for trumpeting that he is the social media hero who stood up to Poh Lin, but then rages against his well-meaning father when the latter posts a picture of Jayden online, thereby tempting trolls online and off and endangering the entire family.

As Tan shows, there are no winners in the court of opinion and life boils down to one question: Which is worse - dying physically or dying inside even as you live?

Fresh from her triumph as Best Director at this year's Life Theatre Awards, Tracie Pang once again proves how much magic her taut, intuitive trusting direction yields.

Of course, it helps that everyone in her cast - even winsome first-timer Jenkins - not only brings her his best game, but also surpasses himself with a disarmingly natural and nuanced performance.

Better yet, their excellence is matched by the creative team. Set designer Wai Yin Kwok who uses staircases leading nowhere as her main motif to great effect. Lighting designer James Tan and projection designer Genevieve Peck wow with smart and simple artistry, including cross-stage striations morphing from rainbow hues to shades of grey and pink.

Sound designer Jing Ng pulls off the trickiest ask of all, providing split-second sound effects such as the drumming of chopsticks, the crackle of paper and the whisking of doors.

In ambition and execution, Tango is a mesmeric showcase of world- class talent. If you care about being truly human, you would do well to watch it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2017, with the headline 'Tango a mesmeric showcase of talent'. Print Edition | Subscribe