On trees and roots

Trees, A Crowd's (from far left) Chng Xin Xuan, Jo Tan, Shafiqhah Efandi and Faizal Abdullah.
Trees, A Crowd's (from left) Chng Xin Xuan, Jo Tan, Shafiqhah Efandi and Faizal Abdullah. PHOTO: HAMAIZA KASBAN



Irfan Kasban/The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival

Black Box, Goodman Arts Centre/ Last Friday

Trees, A Crowd... does not take itself too seriously, yet is firmly grounded in reality.

It is a neat smackdown of the stereotypes about millennials while also finding humour in the complaints that 20somethings are self-centred and lack focus.

Written and directed by Irfan Kasban, the play is mock forum theatre, engaging the audience in a debate over which of two trees in the path of a new highway deserve to be saved.

One is a 150-year-old giant which an arborist argues is rotten at the core and in danger of toppling.

The other is a stunted 50-year-old tree planted by Singapore's first prime minister and home to an endangered species.

Arguments for and against each tree are presented by actors Jo Tan, Faizal Abdullah, Shafiqhah Efandi and Chng Xin Xuan. They play tree-loving members of The Society Of Flora And Roots as well as a range of experts and laypeople offering opinions that range from solemn to silly.

Trees, A Crowd... is one of two headline acts of the inaugural The Twenty-Something Theatre Festival produced by Tan Kheng Hua. (The other headline play by Joel Tan runs from Thursday to June 19.)

The festival aims to set younger theatre-makers free of the demands that might be placed on them by older theatre companies and also features six other plays by less well-known 20somethings chosen from an open call.

Trees, A Crowd... is a good example of what the festival hopes to achieve. It brings a breath of fresh air to old issues still under debate, including the disappearance of physical markers of history and the argument over what constitutes Singapore's real history. By celebrating only 50 years of it, do we feed into a growing sense of rootlessness?

The trees are important, but so too is the freedom to debate them. As the script points out, it is easier to argue about trees in public than matters more political.

This is nicely illustrated by a set that includes a giant "tree" made of twisted electrical cords, light bulbs, paper lanterns and road barrier tape.

For most of the roughly 80-minute play, however, attention is directed to the bland urban stage of tables, chairs and TV studios where the argument over conservation plays out.

Rare are the occasions when the lights dim and the tree is illuminated by the bulbs from its own branches.

In the haunting beauty of the tableau, as the cast sings old folk songs, the audience glimpses the enormity of what cannot be saved.

It can be remembered, for a while, lamented, for a while. The past giving way to the future is the natural order of things.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2016, with the headline 'On trees and roots'. Print Edition | Subscribe