Frozen in a pit of despair

Frozen in a pit of despair
Karen Tan (far left) as the grieving mother of a murdered girl, Janice Koh (left) as a psychiatrist who studies serial killers, while Adrian Pang (background) is the shadowy man who could be viewed as a monster or loner.

Forcing themselves to confront the darkest parts of humanity has left some of Singapore's top actors deeply unnerved.

Janice Koh, Karen Tan and Adrian Pang are all sinking into their seats in theatre company Pangdemonium's office, exhaustion written all over their faces and the day has only just begun.

Their upcoming theatre production, Frozen, is the furthest thing from the popular, buoyant Disney movie of the same name.

With director Tracie Pang at the helm, the trio of actors will plunge deep into the heart of murder, revenge and the stomach-churning topic of paedophilia, in what she calls one of their most "challenging" productions to date.

It will run from Oct 23 to Nov 9 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.

Frozen, written by British playwright Bryony Lavery, knits together the lives of Nancy (played by Tan), the grieving mother of a murdered 10-year-old girl; Agnetha (Koh), a psychiatrist who studies serial killers and has some secrets of her own; and the shadowy Ralph (Pang), who could be a revolting monster or a misunderstood loner - depending on your point of view.

The dark, provocative 1998 play was nominated for four Tony Awards, including Best Play.

Tracie Pang found the play "alien" when she first read it and had to convince herself to step up to the challenge.

Her husband, actor Adrian Pang, exhales when he recalls his first read of the play: "All three of them are psychos."

He adds: "It only really sucks you in when the pieces start to come together and the lives of the three characters start to converge. And before you know it, you're in this pit of despair."

"It's a beast," he says, eyes widening.

This is not the first time Pangdemonium has dealt with death or mental health issues, with their critically acclaimed presentations of Rabbit Hole, about a couple struggling to come to terms with their son's death; and Next To Normal, a rousing musical about living with a family member who has bipolar disorder.

But Frozen seems to have left a deeper mark, especially when the creative team started to dig into research on serial killers and living with loss. All of them are parents and this makes the content of the play hit closer to home.

Some of them found themselves at odds with some of the characters.

Tan says of paedophilia: "We have people who deliberately do research into this sort of illness and say, actually, we can cure them, it's not their fault, they didn't choose to become like this.

And then there's the other camp that has been affected by people who suffer from this and says, no, I think they chose to do so."

She adds, of herself: "Karen - not so much my character Nancy, maybe - feels that it's a choice. People who go through certain terrible circumstances do come out on the other end as well  - successful, stable and normal. I just feel that certain things are hard for me to come round to. But then, all the more, it is interesting to do a piece like this."

Koh says: "I think the larger question is, is it a crime of evil or is it a crime of illness?"

She had been reluctant to say yes to the role at first, finding the content and structure of the play incredibly difficult: "It's not straightforward. But I'm also drawn to it because there's a voyeuristic attraction to discover the lives of people who commit such acts."

Tracie Pang says: "The whole world's natural reaction to paedophilia is absolute revulsion and nobody wants to deal with it, they just want to lock it away.

"But this brings up the questions: Is that what we should be doing? Shouldn't we actually be treating it? Or are these people seen as pandering to paedophiles? So it brings up huge questions about whether we're doing the right thing."

Adrian Pang's Ralph was inspired by the Scottish serial killer Robert Black, whose heinous crimes against young girls shocked the United Kingdom when he was arrested in 1990.

Koh's character, Agnetha, was based on the real-life, renowned psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis, who later accused playwright Lavery of plagiarising her life and personality for the play, from a profile written by Malcolm Gladwell and published in The New Yorker in 1997.

Lewis was quoted as saying: "She took things about my own life, and that is the part that made me feel violated."

Gladwell later reasoned that "the use of old words in the service of a new idea" was "unsettling", but permissible.

The Pangdemonium team is aware of this and while they do not endorse what Lavery did - not citing her sources - they still believe that she has created a very powerful and gut-wrenching play.

Looking at her husband, Tracie Pang says: "It's very consuming. Whereas for other plays we could sit and talk about it, we'll get up in the morning and sit in silence.

I feel that for the past couple of weeks, we've been walking around with this weight we've been carrying. It has affected us differently from the other plays that we've done.

"Your brain is fighting logic with emotion, which I think the majority of the audience will do as well. It's an internal struggle that you should be able to come out and discuss.

It doesn't give answers and I don't think there are any."

Book it: Frozen
Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio
When: Oct 23 to Nov 9, Tuesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 3 and 8pm
Admission: $35 to $40
Info: Advisory 16 - mature theme and coarse language

 

This article was first published on October 14, 2014.
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