Theatre review: The Optic Trilogy

Brendon Fernandez and Janice Koh in Wild Rice's production, The Optic Trilogy.

SINGAPORE - Theatre is, more often than not, first encountered as a visual medium.

Your senses are sated first by light: You take in the actors, their features, how they interact with the world they inhabit, and then sound creeps in a little later with the words they speak and the noises you hear.

Playwright Alfian Sa'at's The Optic Trilogy, written when he was 24, extends this metaphor of the eye and vision into a triptych of plays first staged in 2001.

Titled Transparency, Brilliance and, finally, Iridescence, the three playlets in the trilogy each feature a chance encounter (or, depending on how you see it, a missed connection) between a man and a woman, played throughout by Brendon Fernandez and Janice Koh.

In the first, a young woman, struggling with her relationship with Singapore, hires a social escort to while away the hours in her glass-panelled hotel room - through conversation, not sex.

In the second, a nervous photographer hires a blind woman to pose for him in the studio. And in the third, a woman proposes marriage to a man she has only just met online with a diamond ring.

The Optic Trilogy is a poetic and playful experiment in metaphor that is underscored by quiet tragedy, especially when held up in contrast to the light moments of comedy sprinkled inbetween.

In particular, the work comes suffused with longing, a wistfulness that wraps its tendrils around each vignette. The escort kisses someone behind a glass pane. The blind woman deliberately takes a photograph she will never be able to see. A grieving woman attempts to halve a diamond.

However, the characters also sometimes feel like abstract collections of ideas and thoughts rather than fully fleshed human beings, a conduit through which paragraphs of lyrical contemplation can flow through and never altogether real.

Director Ivan Heng moves his actors around the small black box space like a pair of fencers. As they spar, verbally, he makes them come together and then retreat, each sniffing out wariness and suspicion as they make each other's acquaintance, and then they circle each other, looking for chinks in the armour.

Fernandez comes across as a little too large for the space, painting his emotions in broad, brash strokes. I was not convinced of his over-articulate rent boy in the first act, ruffled by a strange woman's barrage of questions. His smarmy bravado comes through, but not the insecurities beneath that well-pressed suit.

Koh, on the other hand, has a better grasp of the fragility and intimacy required of the piece, a mix of pretended confidence and secret fears.

She masks her characters' vulnerability in swathes of words, shedding sentences as they go along until they stand raw and alone, unsure of the world and their place in it, mauled by heartbreak and burdened by small sadnesses.

There are some well-placed motifs that recur across the trilogy: a single red rose in a glass of water, a cigarette, the mention of a photo studio or a hotel room wrapped in loneliness.

The nature of sex is also dissected in each piece, whether in terms of its contractual obligations in the first, if its magic can ever truly be repeated in the second, and most painfully, as a validation of love in the third.

It is a clever composition, but some moments do veer off key. In the final Iridescence, for instance, there is an imagined sexual tryst, a menage a trois that comes off feeling terribly false - and although I did understand the intention behind the scene's forcefulness, it was a disconcerting way of scrutinising sexuality. 

Sure, some of the setups are not exactly persuasive. But at the end of the day, these characters do share a common concern, in that they are inadvertently blinded by their closeness to their own circumstances. Imagine holding the page of a book so close to your face that all you see are the spaces between letters, the cracks to fall through.

This play does not provide the answers, but it does shine a light into those crevices and allows us a glimpse into the shadows.