Big Girl, Little Girl and Rice! are Samplings of Virtual Theatre that Leave Us Unsatiated
By Adriana Nordin Manan

Image Credit: Official Websites of Wayang Kitchen and Panas Panas Theatre

The theatre-going audience is a starved one, it’s true. So, it is encouraging to see smaller outfits retain the momentum by producing shows that depart from the norm of audiences warming up seats in the same hall. Two such shows were the recently concluded Big Girl, Little Girl (BGLG) and Rice! A six-minute audio play and one-hour Zoom play respectively, both productions intrigue with their exciting premises, but deeper consideration highlights their common misstep: a tendency to diminish their own efforts.

BGLG is produced by Panas Panas Theatre, a Kuala Lumpur theatre collective which launched last year with a mission to “instigate innovation in theatre practices.” Directed by Hana Nadira, Panas Panas co-founder, and performed by Panas Panas collaborator Sandee Chew, BGLG situates itself squarely as a vignette during the pandemic. It can be summarised as the recollections of a woman in 2020, recalling her personal journey through time as bookmarked by national milestones such as Vision 2020, that dream of hyper developmental excess that characterises the Mahathir 1.0 administration in collective memory.

Putting two and two together after reading the production poster and listening to the play, one can understand BGLG’s journey from process to product. This is enforced by the sense of cohort kinship that arises from being a fellow Malaysian of Hana and Sandee’s generation. The content was devised through month-long reflections and conversations over Zoom by both women.

Transporting us to the 1990s is the opening sound of a computer connecting to dial-up Internet, the one that sounds like shrill shrieks punctuated by a blunt anvil (you know the one). A playful voice then calls out: “I’m looking for clues, I’m looking for clues!” This moment sets up the intrigue and reels in the listener, who only has their ears to train on the show before them. Sadly, this is scuppered by overlapping voices that drown out the earlier voice, and in doing so displace the audience from fully enjoying the experience too.

If we can imagine the audience as a crowd of guests invited to a party, less than a minute into BGLG is where the audience asks the hosts in puzzlement, “Hey why do this to us? Weren’t we supposed to enjoy this together?” This sensory alienation continues for a while, where the flurry of voices precludes any possibility for the audience to latch on to full sentences, forcing them to be content with the few words they can make out from the hubbub.

Now for the “what if?” moment. What if, experienced practitioners that they are, the team knew full well the listener experience and deliberately intended it so?

Then we don’t fight the din and focus only on the words that come out clearly.

“Feel unfulfilled and gratitude…”
“Same body and same psyche at the same time…”
“Wawasan 2020…”
“Little delicate fragile thing…”
“It’s 2020 and I turn 40 this year…”

Fears of watching your parents age, personal and national thresholds crossed in 2020, and seeing generational schisms through the symbol of Mickey Mouse are but a few strands that can be tracked. Brevity doesn’t automatically make something poetry, but these little blips that we make out are almost poetic.

But imagine if the audience were led through with more care and camaraderie. How much better an experience it would have been.

Rice! is a co-production by London’s Omnibus Theatre and Wayang Kitchen, a theatre company headquartered in Kuala Lumpur and London and co-founded by Razif Hashim and Hester Welch, who also directed the play in these two cities respectively. Starring Amanda Ang and Michelle Wen Li, it is written by Vera Chok, an actor from Petaling Jaya who relocated to the United Kingdom 25 years ago. The story revolves around the life of Connie Chen, a Malaysian woman who seeks to escape suffocating familial and societal mores and ventures to the United Kingdom. Ang plays the younger Chen in Malaysia, while Li plays the older Chen from 25 years later, in the United Kingdom. Experientially, the show unfolds through Zoom screens alternating between Ang and Li.

The themes of diaspora, women’s agency and self-determination, and cultural collisions are perennially compelling. Whatever age we live in, questions of belonging, chiselling the self out of a constricting society, and alienation in a new culture will likely draw interest from people seeking to contemplate in communion. Rice! adds a sensorily exciting layer by offering interested audience members the option of a Zoom cooking lesson before the show. The tea-boiled egg, rice congee and peanut cookie from the lesson appear at different intervals in Rice!, during which the audience is invited to partake.

The acting in Rice! felt uneven as Ang and Li conveyed Connie Chen disjointedly, and the difference couldn’t be explained away as a mere by-product of actors performing a character at different stages in life. Surely if Ang’s Chen was vivacious, cheeky and flirtatious, a little bit of that spirit would still be there in Li’s Chen 25 years later? Instead, we see glaring differences in temperament that make it tough to believe that the actors were synced to play the same character. Li’s performance felt almost half-hearted, compounded by Zoom’s flattening of personas on the screen which made the acting feel even more tepid.

As a theatre-going Malaysian who appreciates global cross-cultural differences, watching Rice! left me wondering if I fit the profile of the play’s intended audience. I ask because the writing seemed banal or reliant on tired tropes about Asians that might elicit laughter from an audience of non-Asian (read: white) British folks, but came across as unimaginative to me.

To name one example, in one scene Ang states that the audience and her character are different, because the former is not Asian and so has no experience of being beaten by their parents. Yawn. There was an instance in an accompanying video clip which also sat rather strangely due to a dismissive remark about Malaysia’s indigenous communities.

Rice! felt like a missed opportunity to build strong character arcs. There were great scenes, like the one where Chen’s nosy auntie-type neighbours gossip hurtfully about her. The air of vulnerability was fresh, and I expected it to be extrapolated, contorted or simply worked on to let us in on Chen’s interiority or struggles. But instead, we were fed scenes of the older Chen in a kitchen, talking to a toy dragon and rambling while being overall disengaging. If you have opportunities to show mastery, why resort to the elementary?

The play also seemed to struggle with silence. In between scenes, when some silence to let the audience process what was unfolding would have been nice, we instead got rehashed jokes about Chinese people that are commonly heard in British society. In 2021, I think it’s right to ask, to what end are lazy jokes and punching down humour presented in theatre? And this shouldn’t be mistaken for a call for a blanket ban or patchy argument of political correctness.

What are you serving through your creative choices, is the question I would like to invite the teams behind BGLG and Rice! to ponder.

Big Girl Little Girl and Rice! were both available online in February 2021.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Adriana Nordin Manan is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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