The 3 Rooms in which The Theatre Practice's Chinese-language Poor Theatre series unfolds are small, claustrophobic spaces, teeming with suppressed personal histories and repressed hurts.
This applied to the two brief and otherwise very different playlets I watched on Wednesday evening at the Stamford Arts Centre: Neo Hai Bin's Anahata (Xin Fang, which could be translated as "the room of the heart") and The Nude by Ric Liu and Zhu Xinchen (Luo Hua Shi, literally "Nude Art Studio").
Anahata, anchored in physical theatre, is a moody, cryptic undertaking that, through layers of thick metaphor and vague monologues by actress Grace Khoo, attempts to look at stormy relationships between mothers and daughters through a violent act (mostly described and then portrayed through a lot of running and convulsing) that could be an actual abortion or perhaps a portrayal of aborted dreams and desires.
The Nude is the stronger piece of the two, a twisty little drama involving a mysterious art assistant (Ng Mun Poh) whose "teacher" is absent, and a woman claiming to be a police investigator (Jodi Chan) who storms into the studio, demanding a particular nude painting as evidence in a vague police case. What transpires is a discussion on the nature of art and how much an artist truly "owns" his subjects.
Drawing from Polish theatre practitioner Jerzy Grotowski's aims for a non-commercialised, stripped-down theatre, each play is intimate and spare, centred largely around one set piece each: in Anahata, actress Fervyn Tan is enclosed in a little room of transparent plastic sheeting; in The Nude, Chan and Ng tussle over an empty white wooden frame, which they reinvent as a painting, a couch, or perhaps the lines they cannot cross.
The performers are always visibly trapped on stage no matter how much they try to rationalise their actions or talk their way out of situations, lending a nice undertone of tension to both works.
But Anahata relies heavily on bits of ambiguous exposition ("There is nothing here... Why do you want me to remember these things?") to prop up its existential soul-searching, abandoning difficult and potentially meaty discussions about how one buries memories, or how the sins of the mother might be revisited on the daughter, for flighty bits of movement. There are moments both beautiful and haunting; when the two actresses move in symmetry, Tan within and Khoo outside, free but shackled to her past, there is an invisible bond between the two that is deep and primordial. But rather than complimenting and fleshing out a complex narrative, the elements of physical theatre and monodrama feel mutually exclusive.
The Nude's carefully choreographed sequences, on the other hand, cleverly play out the push and pull between its characters, allowing the audience to imagine what these nude paintings might look like even when the frame is a yawning empty space. Our minds automatically fill in the visual gaps. The same goes with the actress' costuming: they are both clad in white and don commedia dell'arte-type masks, so their faces are obscured, but we immediately identify them as people approaching each other on the same plane, almost identical in physique but completely different in tone. The actresses' sparring eventually drops into a repetitive mold, but there are enough plot-thickening twists to keep them on their feet in this tightly-paced work.
Devised by The Theatre Practice's Lab, an experimental wing headed by director Liu Xiaoyi, there is a third short play written by Juliet Zhu and directed by Isabella Chiam that I did not get a chance to see - only two plays are staged each evening. But while brief, 3 Rooms stands out as an intriguing showcase of new Chinese writing for the theatre, raw around the edges but pulsing with energy, bringing out several new voices with fresh things to say.
Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan
3 ROOMS (POOR THEATRE SERIES)
Where: Stamford Arts Centre
When: Till Nov 16, 8pm (no show on Monday)
Admission: Pay as you wish. Limited seats available. To register and for more information, call 6337-2525
Info: Performed in Mandarin with no surtitles. For more information, go to en.practice.org.sg/pt2014