Sunday, March 13, 2011

"Emily Of Emerald Hill" - A Feistily Shiok Performance

Mention Peranakan and colourful images of brightly intricate sarong kebayas and fussily-prepared signature dishes come to mind.

Sadly, Red Dot Diva sighs, true-blue Peranakans are hard to find these days as the culture is becoming assimilated into the larger mainstream Chinese diaspora through-out South-East Asia.

Red Dot Diva grew up in a household with a strong Peranakan heritage. Even though her maternal grandmother did not wear the sarong kebayas nor belong to a filthy-rich family, one would not be able to mistake "Mama's" inherently feisty matriachal-bibik-ness. Where on earth does one think Red Dot Diva got that Diva attitude from? ;)

Emily of Emerald Hill”, written by Stella Kon, is an iconic Peranakan play. While highlighting the quirks of the Peranakan culture, it still offers the universal themes about womanhood, love, sacrifices, family and loss that anyone can appreciate.

There have been other versions of "Emily of Emerald Hill" staged locally. The interpretation of the play performed by Margaret Chan is especially well-known. Unfortunately, Red Dot Diva had missed watching these previous productions. So when Wild Rice announced their production schedule, she just had to make a date with “Emily”. No more excuses this time!

"Emily", a one-wo(man) play, has also been staged in several countries - by 7 women and 1 man. That one man is none other than popular local actor Ivan Heng, who has almost perfected the depiction of Emily the Nonya-matriarch to the highest order. He even had the curves to prove it!

Ivan first played the role more than 10 years ago, and has decided get re-acquainted with Emily again this year for Wild Rice's 10th Anniversary celebrations.

The play chronicles the life of an abandoned teenage girl who was pushed into early adulthood by a marriage to a rich man's son, who happened to be twice her age. Through her cunning and wit, Emily Gan manages to work her way into the favours of the family, especially through the very old-school, betel-nut chewing, cherki-gambling MIL. She became reigning matriach of the Gan family, was crowned the belle of society - thanks to her social charms and fantastic cooking, and finally emerged as the sole heir of the Gans' fortunes.

But all these came at a cost.

Emily had to deal with the tragic loss of her eldest son, Richard and the rejections of her husband (Hello.. Diana Lee of Amber Road!). Red Dot Diva wistfully notes that it is so typical of the Asian culture to pamper their sons with the most ostentatious kind of love. But, she also wonders about one particular scene, where Emily gives her daughter Doris some very wise motherly advice about love and marriage, that perhaps.... she may love Doris in her very own special tender way after all.

One would have thought that a play which primarily consists of a 2.5-hour one-person narrative would be difficult to sit through. Red Dot Diva attests that this wasn't the case with Wild Rice's "Emily".

The primary reason why this "Emily" production breezed through in the most entertaining fashion has to be the energetic Ivan, who put up an almost faultless, scintillating and irreverent performance as the Nonya matriach. Red Dot Diva was there on opening night and there were some glitches. Ivan tripped on a word or two, his glittery earrings kept falling off and a dress he was changing into got caught on his shoe heel. But Ivan the professional, never lost a beat and ad-libbed through these little hiccups.

It was wonderful to see Ivan adeptly use various accents and different voices for the other characters during the play's narrative, like the pipe-smoking elder Mr Gan, for example.

Ivan also engaged the audience interactively (oh, the poor hapless 1st row people!) and it was most amusing watching him trying to get their bewildered attention during the sewing class scene.

But even as Ivan performed each glamourous sashay and flourish as proud domineering Emily, one could still sense the constant underlying currents of quite a sad tale.

Red Dot Diva wishes that she had watched Margaret Chan's performance before so that she is able to make an informed comparison between the two productions of "Emily". But since she has not, she can only comment on this latest production by Wild Rice.

Red Dot Diva also thought the play was wonderfully directed by Glen Goei, a long-time artistic partner of Ivan and a well-known local creative personality in his own right. The decision to have Ivan speak like a wind-up doll in super-quick-time for the scene where Emily was doing some envious multi-tasking was simply brilliant!

The sets were interestingly build and quite beautiful. Red Dot Diva liked how the sets transitioned smoothly in between scenes, for example, from a cosy living room to a large winding staircase reminiscent of a grand ballroom. A special mention to the look and effects for "foggy wintry London", where Emily went, in an attempt to dissuade her son from working at the stables. That part of the play looked like it almost came from some movie set.

The use of choice spotlighting also served to focus on Emily's ups and downs. The spotlight fading into total darkness while Emily grieved over the loss of Richard made a deep soulful impression.

Together as a team, Red Dot Diva felt that Wild Rice had put out a vibrant and updated production of "Emily" that was relevant as well as a poignant tribute to women around the world. The lament that Emily uttered, "Before my breasts were grown, I learnt that a woman is nothing in this world that men have made.", still rings true to almost every woman. Red Dot Diva is sure that her sisters still battle with this notion at one time or other.

Red Dot Diva also came away from the production, in absolute awe of Ivan's sheer stage presence.

"Emily of Emerald Hill" has ended its run yesterday on 12th March at the Esplanade. It is yet another testatment to Wild Rice's colourfully creative (and sometimes lavish) way of re-imagining familiar plays and roles.

And Red Dot Diva simply can't wait for more!


Especially for those non-locals who are curious about Peranakan culture and theatre, here's an interesting video clip from Wild Rice:

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