by Brian Bergen-Aurand
Having just experienced a preview performance of the play Absence–Presence, I cannot help thinking about the relations among desire, intimacy, art & commerce, and touch. I was not sure where the play was going to take me or how it was going to get me there, but by the end I could not stop staring at the actors and had a hard time getting out of my seat. In the best of ways, I was left with wanting to know what was going to happen next and how things would continue to play out across this space haunted by spectres brushing up against one another.
The play is actually three short plays–“Absence,” “–,” and “Presence”–here performed simultaneously, in one space, so they overlap, touch on one another. The set is sparse, reminiscent of but more dynamic than Lars von Trier’s staging of Dogville (2003), where white tape on a dark floor represents walls and doors and a few pieces of furniture fill out the set. In Absence–Presence, we also get the white tape on the black floor, although colorful chalk drawings are put in juxtaposition with white furniture and bare lighting and electronics. The three pairs of characters–mother/son, wife/husband, young foreign worker/old retired filmmaker–are three groups of people who inhabit the same location at different times, thus, as we watch the play, characters walk past each other, crawl across each others’ drawings, sleep side-by-side, and come into contact like spectres who cannot quite acknowledge one another. As the characters move through the space, they open the movements of time: acting out and working through experiences. This is a ghost story, of sorts, of course.
Absence–Presence is the new play commissioned by Just Teathre for their performance at Drama Centre’s Blackbox, National Library, Singapore–29 October through 1 November 2014. The play is written by Geraldine Song and directed by Shafie M. Haja and Nurul Faizzah Azmi, with dramaturgy by Noor Effendy Ibrahim, and a production team including Sofia Begum, Shreya Gopi, Theeben Ramani, and Nithya Rao. In its current permutation, the play is being performed by Aaraon Lim, Abby L. Kahei, Vemalan Elangovan, Shafiqhah Efandi, Md Amin b Md Ali, and Adib Kosnan.
When I spoke with Shafie Haja after the performance, he gave me some points to consider about the characterization they developed in the performances and some ideas about his directing style. Since the play is so concerned with moving through time and moving through space, sharing and interrupting flows and transferences, three stories from different times taking place in the same location, he said they had to concentrate a lot on choreography. Characters can touch and interact, but only on the surface. They had to work out movements and gestures that would not interfere with the flows of the stories. Mostly, he said, he was involved more at the start of rehearsals, to help them avoid crashing into one another. However, as the actors got more comfortable moving through the space and more comfortable with one another crossing sight lines or moving, drawing, or performing otherwise on their lines, he removed himself from the process. Fittingly, he became more absent as the characters became more present, slowing erasing himself, leaving only traces behind.
At first, I was confused by the chronologies of the play(s) and the spatial arrangements. I kept searching for overt connections between the stories, something reminiscent of the film Magnolia (1999), wondering if these were the stories of three stages in someone’s life. They are not. Rather, in the end, I began seeing the three stories in relation to three ways intimacy is blocked. The dead block relations between those who go on living, maybe even more so when we all love the one we have lost. The interests and talents that connect us, our gifts and debts to one another, include us in economies of exchange, remain between us, enframe us, keep us apart. Being apart–separated by time and place–may be the strongest connection of all, one we cannot let go of, let alone forget.
This performance takes risks with storytelling, staging, and, perhaps, the patience of some audiences members. It is all the better for its risks and, I think, rewards your patience, as does good theater.
And did I mention I was into the lone guitar accompaniment from the moment I walked into the space? Haunting.