Drama and the traditional Chinese art form of crosstalk come together in It Could Have Been ____!, a production that cycles through Singapore's journey from a fledgling colonial outpost to the gleaming metropolis it is today.
Crosstalk, or xiang sheng in Chinese, delivers lyrical, witty banter exchanged between two fast-talking comics, which lasts for about 10 to 15 minutes.
Several of these will be knitted together in It Could Have Been ____!. The 120-minute-long production is written and directed by Cultural Medallion recipient Han Lao Da, who has more than 40 years of experience in crosstalk.
In between rehearsals at theatre company's Drama Box headquarters in Chinatown, Han, 67, says: "I wrote the first sketch in 2006 when I was inspired to write something about Singapore- Malaysian relations. So this has been in the making for nine years.
"I've wanted to do this for a long time because I feel that crosstalk is an art form that blends comedy with dramatic elements well. It adds that touch of human empathy."
He asked Drama Box artistic director Kok Heng Leun to co-direct the production. They have worked together before, most notably on the 2011 performance, Hundred Years Of Crosstalk, also staged at the Esplanade.
Kok, both a practitioner and scholar of Chinese theatre, says: "Crosstalk is casual and spontaneous, while there are certain rules in drama which are stricter. The challenge for this production was in framing it in a way that it retained the spirit of both forms."
One aspect that Kok did differently was the blocking, or movement and positions, of the actors on stage.
"Usually, actors stand during crosstalk, but I made them sit and stand, to reveal the different power politics and structures in the stories they tell," he says.
The pair of directors were partially inspired by other crosstalk experts, including Taiwanese playwright-director Stan Lai, and Chinese crosstalk artists Jiang Kun and Hou Baolin.
The cast of It Could Have Been ____! is anchored by two local crosstalk veterans, Johnny Ng, 61, and Yong Ser Pin, 67. Both are long-time members of Sin Feng Xiang Sheng society, a group of crosstalk writers here who perform at community clubs and schools to promote the art form.
Ng plays the 50-year-old son to Yong's octogenarian father, who narrates his life's recollections as his memory begins to fail. As the story zips through Singapore's history, more actors join them on stage, including a Malay, an Indian, a Malaysian Chinese and a Chinese national, to reflect the country's growing diversity.
Ng and Yong worked with Han and Kok to revise their lines and tighten the script.
Says Ng: "Most of our sketches are about 10 minutes long, and people are relaxed and laughing along. This time, the production is longer and we have to do dramatic work, so that's different."
Yong adds: "Many of the stories are laden with Singapore's historical baggage, which can get very sobering. There's so much that our country has been through so it is hard to condense everything into two hours."
The pair, in the thick of rehearsals when this reporter arrived, re-enact a scene they were working on. Ng, playing a Japanese soldier, interrogates and repeatedly smacks Yong, whose character's speech brims with malapropisms and unintentionally obtuse responses.
At the end of it, Yong says: "It may seem funny now, but this really did happen to our ancestors. My father objected when I wanted to study in Japan. He was slapped by the Japanese till he bled."
Summing up the play, Kok says: "This crosstalk will make you laugh and cry. It's rare that crosstalk does that."