Theatre review: Messy affirmation of gay lives

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 9, 2013

Review Theatre

DREAMPLAY: ASIAN BOYS VOL. 1

Wild Rice/Lasalle College of the Arts, Flexible Performance Space/Last Saturday

Wild Rice's In The Spotlight festival brings back some of playwright Alfian Sa'at's earliest works, including this first volume of the Asian Boys series, which premiered when he was 23, in 2000.

Dreamplay was lauded as being audaciously risque and provocative, a trailblazer that went where few dared to tread.

So the fact that this play no longer comes across as being incredibly controversial is, in fact, a remarkable thing - a reflection of how gay culture has crossed over from the ostracised margins and into the mainstream. The Singapore stage has given the pink play a place to call home.

Dreamplay unfolds within the structure of an allegory, loosely adapted from Swedish playwright August Strindberg's A Dream Play (1901).

The goddess Agnes (Jo Kukathas), daughter of the god Indra, comes to Singapore on a mission to save mankind. She discovers, with the help of the everyman Boy (Tan Shou Chen), that her terrestrial purpose is to put gay men back on the straight and narrow.

The work comes with raucous gags and easy laughs, and Alfian's early writing is gilded with a wide-eyed hopefulness and a raw lyricism that mixes gleeful camp and brash, in-your-face humour with rather straightlaced (and sometimes dreary) philosophising.

Director Ivan Heng opts for a stripped-down staging which goes heavy on the lavish costumes and multimedia, and the ensemble throws itself wholeheartedly into these imagined pasts with plenty of pizzazz.

Dreamplay drops in on several points in Singapore's history, zig-zagging haphazardly from a gay club to a pair of coolies in 19th-century Nanyang to two fugitives dodging the Japanese in World War II. Agnes attempts to correct these errant men (or so she believes) in heavy-handed ways that reek of her guileless naivete.

It is a clever, if showy, dramatic device, joining a host of other deliberately flashy flourishes that include action in slo-mo, nudge-nudge wink-wink puns and allusions (an anti-Japanese force is dubbed Force 302, referencing the Singapore Armed Forces' Category 302 said to be set aside for gay members of the army), and enough pop culture references to leave you sated for weeks.

The play then swings in the opposite direction at its close, taking on a heavy, over-didactic air as it instructs the viewer to love and accept one's self.

While I did not see the original staging, I believe this revival throws in a few updates, including a scene where director Ivan Heng (Peter Sau), playwright Alfian (Rodney Oliveiro) and actor Caleb Goh (playing himself) are questioned by the authorities in a style reminiscent of Moises Kauffman's 1997 play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials Of Oscar Wilde.

This self-referential segment brings the gay history of Singapore to the present day, wrestling with conservative fears of how gay artists might be pushing some sort of homosexual agenda through the works they create. (The answer is no.)

While recklessly messy in parts and dawdlingly slow in others, Dreamplay manages to skip along with an infectious abandon, a joyful affirmation of lives once hidden and despised.

Now - for Volumes 2 and 3.