By Alex Li
A hush descends over the crowd. The people next to me plan a Korean barbecue dinner (one of them insists she won’t eat garlic). A stagehand polishes the glossy black floor that the audience was earlier instructed not to step on. Through it all, a puppet watches from centre stage. Its head a perfect circle, its eyes squarely framed within spectacles, its irises lit from within. Fluorescent, as if a sheet of paper placed over a torch light. It looks like a child’s drawing from an art class where children have been told to make likenesses of their grandparents and this one were the likeliest. The likeliest, and the most uncanny.
The lights dim. Two actors climb a couple of creaky steps onto the stage. The puppet on stage is “Pa,” as in Father. The setting of the play is some sort of Singaporean future but we’re inside a family home. The government has launched a product (or is it a scheme?) where you can “upload” your deceased loved ones into a puppet. He’s inside, “Ma”—as in Mother— persists. At once, the contrivance is challenged: the round thing with the eyes and a handle by the back of its head doesn’t really look like “Pa” (it’s too small) and it doesn’t speak, but it is “Pa”. It’s also very obviously, a puppet. “Ma”’s son sees that. He’s concerned with adulting: working to pay his university fees and hoping to use his degree to find a good job. He exasperatedly tells “Ma” to take care of herself, and his anger grows as she spends her money (from multiple jobs) on upgrading “Pa”. The puppet drives a wedge between them and is, throughout the play, almost as if it were “Ma”’s child instead of her flesh and blood one. She interprets his every silence as if a parent guessing at their infant’s unspoken needs. She very clearly, and wilfully, loves him. In a particularly absurd transition, she picks him up and dances with him. A sort of kitchen-ballroom waltz. And she caresses him, as if soothed by the touch. There does not seem to be any other way for her to live.
In The Finger Players’ The Puppets Are Alright, puppets are vehicles for everyday cruelty and violence. “Ma” misses her dead husband and her son misses his distracted, absent mother. “Ma” eventually passes after years of an estranged relationship with her son. In the play’s closing scene, the son puts a wig on the “Pa” puppet, giving it the same hairstyle as the flesh and blood “Ma” (who is no longer onstage). He apologises to the puppet for not being able to buy her a new “body”. On no account are they destitute, but they seem unable to escape their grief; caught in between technological modernity and emotional neglect. The audience is likewise trapped in the confines of a domestic setting as the stage is changed from one kind of flat to another and then another. The second and third acts in the triple bill take place in different houses and feature other difficult familial dynamics between a husband and wife, and a father and his son. In both, like the first, the puppets are in some instances caressed and treasured, but the violence grows as the husband stabs his (puppet) wife and the (puppet) son renounces his father. The flesh and blood actors are shown to be capable of immense care and tenderness toward their puppets but are helpless against emotion. At times the writing was verbose, and across all three plays, the silences were stronger than the scripts. In the silence, I was made to think of the human and the object; and how time and time again I have to attend to what’s broken, what cannot be fixed, and what can.
Each response published on Critics Circle Blog is paired with a statement from the writer where their politic, entry point, purpose, and intended audience is made clear.
I wrote this review for the puppets. And for the people who dedicate their time to them. I wrote this review as a writer, who so happens to be an actor and a theatre-maker, and who is constantly thinking about the time and energy theatre folk (actors, directors, writers, crew) pour into their work. I wanted to write beyond the boundaries of capitalism and consumerism; to think of puppets, and objects (and theatre), beyond the terms of our possession, but as appeals to tenderness, brokenness, and compassion.
This response to ‘The Puppets Are Alright’ was written at the invitation of The Finger Players, who provided our writer with a complimentary ticket in order to write the review.
Charmaine Lim in The Straits Times
The Puppets Are Alright – A Triple Bill
Venue: Drama Centre Black Box
Performed: 22- 26 February, 2023
Producing Company: The Finger Players
Playwright: Ellison Tan
Director: Myra Loke
TML Maker / Puppet Designer & Maker: Marilyn Ang
Performers / Puppeteers: Ian Tan, T. Sasitharan
Assistant Makers: Bernice Ong, Prop-erly, Ray Ng
Playwright & Director: Oliver Chong
Puppet Designer & Maker: Loo An Ni
Performers / Puppeteers: Alvin Chiam, Angelina Chandra, Jo Kwek, Rachel Nip
MY FATHER THE AI MACHINE
Playwright / Mentor to the Director: Chong Tze Chien
Director: Liew Jia Yi
Puppet Designer & Maker: Sim Xin Feng
Performers / Puppeteers: Doreen Toh, Neo Hai Bin
Co-Artistic Directors: Ellison Tan, Myra Loke
Programme Manager (The Maker’s Lab): Daniel Sim
Costume Designer: Lim Chin Huat
Lighting Designer: Faith Liu Yong Huay
Set Designer: Azy Alias
Sound Designer: Serene Tan (Stan)
Production Manager: Lam Dan Fong (The Backstage Affair)
Production Coordinator: Alethea Koh
Stage Manager: Tennie Su
Assistant Stage Manager: Saffa’ Afiqah
Crew: Basil Wan
Surtitle Operator: Shang Dianjun
Sound Operator: Raymond Goei
Key Visual Photographer: Tuckys Photography
Key Visual Design: Goh Cher See
Photography Archival: Benson Lim
Videography Archival: Eric Lee Yuen Loong, Grace Baey
Special Thanks: Jed Lim, Edmund Khong
1 thought on “Response: Alex Li on The Puppets Are Alright by Ellison Tan, Oliver Chong, and Chong Tze Chien (The Finger Players)”
[…] “Response: Alex Li on The Puppets Are Alright by Ellison Tan, Oliver Chong, and Chong Tze Chie… by Alex Li, Critics Circle Blog […]