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Tribes

May 27, 2015
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Tribes1(Picture courtesy of Pangdemonium!)

Event: “Tribes” by Pangdemonium
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre
Run: 22nd May – 7th Jun 2015

The Sounds of Silence

It’s hard to get all excited about “Tribes” – Pangdemonium’s second production of the year – just by looking at the poster or reading its synopsis.

Yes, the poster features a somewhat quirky-looking, dysfunctional family (aren’t they all?) posing in front of a dirty yellow backdrop, and the story is supposed to revolve around a young man named Billy, who happens to be deaf.

What’s the best that could happen right?

But don’t let appearances fool you.

“Tribes” is a play written by Nina Raine, and was first staged in 2010 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, and went on to win the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.

It tells of the story of Billy, played by professional debutant Thomas Pang (no relation to Adrian & Tracie), who is the youngest member of a highly dysfunctional family based in Cambridge, where dad Christopher (Adrian Pang) is a coarse, shoot-from-the-hip academic, mum Beth (Susan Tordoff) is an aspiring novelist, older brother Daniel (Gavin Yap) is sometimes boisterous but an ultimately tortured soul who constantly hears voices in his head, and sister Ruth (Frances Lee) is an aspiring singer who has a hard time finding a boyfriend.

Nobody really pays any attention to Billy, and he is therefore the most neglected person in the family, until he one day meets Sylvia (Ethel Yap), who comes from a family of deaf people and is herself going completely deaf soon.

Billy eventually brings Sylvia home to meet his family, and she inadvertently stumbles into one of the most disastrous meet-the-folks situations ever.

Eventually, Billy gets into a serious relationship with Sylvia, and relationships amongst all the characters in the play are inevitably put to the test, often to breaking point.

“Tribes” is often pacy and funny, with the playwright showing a great ear for dialogue, yet at the same time managing to bring out the main themes of the play, such as identity and empathy.

The gorgeous set by Wong Chee Wai, featuring the family’s living room where almost all the action takes place, is both warm and inviting, making you wish you could just jump right onstage and join them in a meal.

The choice of music was spot-on as usual, and somehow The Verve (in this case “The Drugs Don’t Work”) always seems to go well with Pangdemonium plays, as I recall “Sonnet”, also by The Verve, being prominently and adeptly used in the 2013 play “Gruesome Playground Injuries”.

However, it is in the performances that “Tribes” truly sets itself apart.

Frances Lee and Gavin Yap reunite in a Pangdemonium production, having done “Fat Pig” together last year, and while Frances has proven to be both highly competent and dependable, Gavin shines in the particularly challenging role of the mentally-troubled Daniel, who struggles to keep it together after his younger brother Billy leaves the family.

The transition from cocky, rambunctious older brother at the beginning of the play to the defeated, stammering iteration of the same man at the end of the play was a difficult one to pull off, and Gavin did so brilliantly.

Ethel Yap shines too as the girl who slowly loses all her hearing right before your very eyes, and subtle and expertly-controlled variations in her enunciation throughout the play hint at her slow but eventual deterioration to complete deafness.

Her live rendition of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” at the piano, completely from memory, certainly deserves special mention as well.

(How poignant it would have been had she played say a movement from a Beethoven sonata, as a nod to the great composer who had famously also lost his hearing towards the end of his life.)

But perhaps the biggest accolade has to be reserved for Thomas Pang, in what might be one of the most amazing professional debuts I’ve ever come across.

He not only possesses a commanding stage presence, but also plays the role of Billy to a tee with (what appears to be) fluent signing and finely-calibrated speech nuances, and it must have taken countless hours of research and practice to achieve the level of authenticity as exhibited in his portrayal of the deaf Billy.

Talk about a challenging role for your professional debut, but if this isn’t the definition of “breakout performance” then it’s hard to imagine what is.

One does come away from “Tribes” feeling that it is easily one of the most enjoyable and well-executed Pangdemonium plays in awhile.

Where last October/November’s “Frozen” might have come across as too grim to some, and this January/February’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” feeling somewhat lightweight, “Tribes” strikes the perfect balance between mirth and pathos.

We may all perceive ourselves as being part of a tribe, and even in the deaf community there may be different perceived hierarchies as well, but at the end of the day, as evidenced from the exceedingly touching final scene, it really doesn’t matter what communication infirmity one has…ultimately, the only language that truly matters is the language of love.

Read my lips – “Tribes” is a play you don’t want to miss.

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