Voices uninterrupted: “Two Songs and a Story” review

We’re more than six months (days? years?) into the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore. Cancellations for arts and theatre performances started as early as in February, as countless performances and discussions have gone online.

Enter Two Songs and A Story, or more accurately, ten songs and five stories – the latest work by Checkpoint Theatre. The online video series comprises of five parts, told by five distinct voices (ants chua, Inch Chua, Jo Tan, Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai, and weish). These pieces were written and composed during the Circuit Breaker period1, and it emits an earnest sense of creativity and attempts in meaning-making during isolation.

Two Songs and A Story begins (or at least the default first video plays) with ants chua strumming gently on a ukulele alone in a room. They finish their first song and go, “I’m not very good at singing, sorry”. ants’ opener serves as a warm, gentle invitation. The dark wall, seated cushions and amber lighting alludes to a kind of bedroom intimacy, a nice nod towards the viewer’s domestic environment.

The next segment features Inch Chua, similarly alone with an instrument, a guitar this time. She recounts her time volunteering for sanitation at a migrant workers’ dormitory, like a supervisor exclaiming, “Kan ni na, today, got confirmed case. Be careful!” Her narration feels the most dynamic, such as with her listing off the endless amounts of equipment used: PPE, N95 mask, latex gloves, face shield, mop, cloth, biohazard waste bag.

Jo Tan is the only performer who plays a character, Bit Wah. Jo’s high octane energy might seem jarring as opposed to the other more subdued performers, but her virtual backgrounds, love for anime and surprise dance routine are very fitting for the online medium. (Perhaps the most unbelievable bit is that Bit’s office job has no WFH option…)

Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai is reminiscent of a soulful, pop superstar. Her lyrics are engaging, “I don’t have to heal / If not right now, then someday”. She effectively shares the many contradictions in being human, “I love the ocean, but can’t swim”, and her personal story is fairly moving.

Lastly, coming from her last show (as .gif) at M1 Fringe this year, weish is perhaps the most self-aware performer of the group. She points our her repeated use of loops in her music and her own personal “Capital-T Trauma”. Through breathy sobs, she sings “One day I’ll wake up with someone I love…One day I’ll be brand new.” weish concludes Two Songs and A Story with such a gut-wrenching vulnerability that it almost aches to watch her emotional outpour. It is a strong finish and leaves a lasting impression.

Two Songs and A Story‘s magnetic pull comes from the tension that arises in the show’s attempt to marry these five contrasting parts together, yet simultaneously, intentionally keeping them as distinct and separate parts. In particular, the similar concerns of loneliness, confusion and abandonment that run throughout Two Songs and A Story bind these tales together. There is an ardent sense of catharsis coming from the artists too that effectively unites their creative output.

At the same time, directors Huzir Sulaiman and Joel Lim make a deliberate choice in having these diverse storylines each possess a strikingly different visual style. For instance, with the colour palettes, from Jo’s zany colourful backgrounds to the black-and-white confessional of Rebekah’s monologue. Or with the dynamic camera movements and edits, ranging from weish’s duplicated superimposed images (reminiscent of a ’70s music video) to the accelerated zoom ins of Inch’s face as she passionately belts. These stylistic choices show that these five segments were carefully considered as individual pieces, which positions Two Songs and A Story more as a collage or medley, rather than a tightly organised structure.

Furthermore, the medium itself emphasises the individual distinctions which poses some challenges. The SISTIC live stream format presents Two Songs and A Story as a playlist of five “webisodes” or videos. Unlike a live performance, this playlist gives the viewer options to pause, to stop, or choose which segment to watch first. Most viewers followed the default order, where ants’ piece is placed first and has the most number of views.

As such, the presumed impact on the audience is lost: when consuming Two Songs and A Story chronologically and in its entirety, the viewers’ takeaway will be different from someone who only watched one video or in a different order. Alongside the fact that the artists do not interact with each other or directly reference each other, viewers could easily dismiss watching certain clips and miss the lack of depth or integral elements explored. The carefully planned cohesive thematic and emotional threads would be eroded.

Regardless, the fact that Two Songs and A Story moves away from Zoom and tries to experiment with a different platform is admirable. The audience’s autonomy does hamper or diminish the powerful impact of the combined performances, but this just falls under this new weird tired virtual arts domain we find ourselves in. The viewers, like the artists, are trying to make sense of all of this. This is Two Songs and A Story‘s attempt to reach beyond the screen. Artists create art to connect, to survive and to overcome this awful, existential crisis – together.

Two Songs and a Story by checkpoint theatre runs from 06-31 august 2020.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre

1 Two Songs and a Story: Artist Dialogue

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