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Theater 32.2 (2002) 70-75
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Model City/Model Art
A giant O swallows Desdemona's ghost: O for Othello. Singaporean video artist Matthew Ngui conjures that up, along with much else. Rio Kishida, the eminent Japanese playwright, conjures too as her poetic text casts a net of insinuating imagery, capturing and reshaping Othello's primal energies to be released anew by director Ong Keng Sen in Singapore TheatreWorks' production of Desdemona. These are the ineluctable energies of sexual and ethnic identity and subjugation now at work altering every aspect of today's Asia.
Old Othello (the kathakali-trained Indian actress and choreographer Maya Krishna Rao) dreams he/she is a young girl, or perhaps his/her own father . . . or mother. Young Othello (Madhu Margi, master of the Indian dance form kudiyattum) admits he has killed his wife. His family had enslaved her people generations ago, substituting their individual names with a collective label: O. Zero. This particular zero, whose mother secretly named her Desdemona (Singaporean actress Claire Wong), hasn't fulfilled her sole function: to furnish her husband and master with a male heir, a son to beget more sons all called Othello and all fathered by Othello. For him, no son equals no self. He can't remember his mother and fears that his shaman wife, the Zero/Desdemona, will summon up the forgotten female core of himself. She does exactly that, using the magic of U Zaw Min, a leading puppeteer from Myanmar (since this piece was written, U Zaw Min has died). Performing within his unique tradition, he first dances the Desdemona-as-puppet role himself, the puppet master as the essential puppet. Only then does he bring on the actual Desdemona puppet, which dances to the pull of his strings.
On large screens flanking the stage (set by Justin Hill of Singapore and Australia, lighting by Scott Zielinski of the United States), another video artist, the Korean Park Hwa Young (also the costume designer), punctuates the performance with the projected story of Mona (DesdeMona), a ditsily contemporary woman who gossips on the phone, explores fad diets, and tries to get her visa extended. Also on video, director Ong Keng Sen interviews members of the multicultural cast, whom his production has coerced into conversation with one another, even when they lack a common language or background. A projected e-mail from Singaporean performer and sociologist Low Kee Hong asks Mona whether "we [are] simply pawns in Keng Sen's game, [who provide] an instant Asia for the festival market?"
A good question among the many this complex, challenging theater piece asks. Co-commissioned to open Singapore Arts Festival 2000 (the other partner was Australia's Telstra Adelaide Festival), Desdemona metaphorically embodies the island republic in which it was [End Page 70] brought into being. It is a crossroads of cultures, as this city has always been, depending on the competitive energies of cultural encounter to propel it forward. Using the strategies of deconstruction—the video commentary on the process of artistic creation; the imagistically fluid playing off of male against female, parent against child, subjugator against subjugated—the work reveals many of the basic tensions that beset not only Singapore but Asia in general as it remakes itself for the twenty-first century.
Guidebooks recommend Singapore as a gateway for any Westerner first entering Asia. They celebrate safe, immaculate, tree-canopied avenues where nearly everyone speaks English and culture shock is supposedly lessened, particularly if one's next stop happens to be Tokyo, Delhi, or some other Eastern pandemonium that has grown up organically like a coral reef, unembarrassed by the rationales of Western urban planning.
This equatorial island republic of only 240 square miles offers a buffet of cultures waiting to be sampled in spicy exuberance: Chinese (77 percent of the 2.9 million population), Indian (7 percent), Malay (14 percent). What makes this mélange thrive like a well-tended garden while the countries encircling it—Malaysia and Indonesia—choke with ethnic and religious ferment? The answer appears to be the oversight of a state capitalist system...