“I Stole Satan’s Girlfriend”: What Makes A Bad Play Fun, And Why Is This Not It?
Review by Lim Jack Kin

CW: This article discusses slut-shaming and the use of a word that describes sexual assault.

What makes bad art enjoyable? We’ve all had an experience watching or listening to something that wasn’t good—maybe the production value was shoddy, or the plot was cheesy, or the performers were overacting and hamming it up onstage—but still, we found it entertaining and charming, often because of those very flaws. TV Tropes even has a term for it, often applied to movies with a cult following: “So Bad, It’s Good”. Whether it’s the catchiness of a low-effort pop song or the self-serious hilarity of Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room”, there’s something so satisfying about a performance that sticks it in the snooty noses of High Art’s gatekeepers, something we can enjoy either sincerely or ironically, but always without pretense. Something that’s just fun.

Why, then, is Pop Up Theatre’s new original production, I Stole Satan’s Girlfriend, so tepid and unfun? Written and directed by Scott McQuaid and performed in Kuala Lumpur by a Malaysian cast, the play has an intriguing premise: a young man has a one-night-stand with Lucinda, a mysterious, seductive woman who turns out to be Satan’s ex-girlfriend, and their hooking up causes Satan to trigger the apocalypse in a fit of jealous rage. It’s not intended to be an intellectual masterpiece or an exemplar of high culture, just a relaxed, snappy sit-com of a play, deliberately outlandish and absurd to provoke a laugh or two.

The problem is that it fails. Miserably. Rather than being So-Bad-It’s-Good, it’s So-So-At-Best. Almost all of its humour revolves around sex jokes about Lucinda, and the play shamelessly signals where the jokes are with an obnoxious laugh-track that’s edited in whenever Lucinda says she’s horny. She’s written as an insufferable male wish-fulfillment fantasy (a Demonic Pixie Dream Girl, if you will) whose ‘playfulness’ consists entirely of saying one thing and then immediately insisting she said another, or making advances on the other characters. The fact that the ‘evil’ female character’s one personality trait is being overtly sexual gives the play a nauseating slutshamey vibe and sinks a potentially interesting character under a sea of juvenile stereotypes.

Hapless main character Dan seems to have two moods: shy and panicking. That’s it. That’s literally all there is to say.

At first, a refreshing air of pomp and circumstance surrounds Satan. A minute in, though, and his character is marred by cringeworthy lines like “You look… slutty” or “I must get back to work raping and pillaging the world” that come off as gratuitous, irresponsible, and out of character. Why make the so-far-hoity-toity Satan go out of his way to say a few clearly sensitive, punching-down words, and then expect audiences to laugh at them?

This line gets a laugh track.

If there’s one thing to compliment, it’s that the main cast trio seem to be having fun with their characters. Brian Tiang, Lara Alyssa, and Aniq Durar play Dan, Lucinda, and Satan respectively, and they each bring an earnest sense of enthusiasm to their roles. The play itself is competently staged, with only two locations and a simple set-up between them. Satan’s design choice of long black nail extensions, dark mascara, and a red-black suit-and-robe combo in particular feels amusing and suave. Lucinda is a green-eyed redhead, because of course. The cast and crew seem like they are doing the best they can with what they have.

Even so, they’re not given much. There’s nothing engaging about these characters or their motivations; the play’s main dramatic conflict is resolved by appealing to a sexist stereotype that must have gone out of fashion in 1899. The dialogue as written feels awkward and half-hearted, building no chemistry between the characters and revealing no reason to like them. It all makes for a plot that plods along in disjointed chunks.

Pretty much all of Lucinda’s dialogue is like this.

I paid USD$3, about RM12, for a ticket to I Stole Satan’s Girlfriend. It hurts to say this, but more than once I found myself wishing I spent that money on something else. In an industry as underfunded as the Malaysian arts scene, that’s a difficult feeling to evoke in me, but this play did, and earns some resentment for it.

But why? Why aren’t I enjoying this play? I love bad movies, tacky sitcoms, cheesy and overblown theatre. Scott McQuaid and Pop Up Theatre delight in producing pulpy genre fiction—McQuaid himself directed Space Ninjas in 2019, a sci-fi B-movie that I’m actually interested in watching. Why does I Stole Satan’s Girlfriend’s badness make me cringe instead of laugh?

Strangely enough, the answer might come from a fascinating 1997 episode of This American Life called Fiasco!. In this radio program, writer Jack Hitt relates the story of a production of Peter Pan that goes hilariously wrong—Captain Hook’s hook flings off his hand and punches an old lady in the gut, actors are jerked up by flying machines and “dragged across the floor like mops”, the fire department is called, and by the end, the audience is in stitches. And Ira Glass, in summing up the situation, says:

“One ingredient of many fiascos is that great, massive, heart-wrenching chaos and failure are more likely to occur when great ambition has come into play.”

And that, I think, is the operative word: ambition. All of the best bad art is made with a depth of sincerity, an earnest love of the medium and the craft, the desire to make something beautiful. Enjoying a bad film or a play where things go wrong is so much easier when you’re genuinely rooting for its creators, when you know that they’re putting themselves out there for your enjoyment.

That’s the problem with I Stole Satan’s Girlfriend. It lacks that sense of earnestness. It isn’t trying to be anything. It doesn’t seem like it respects its audience, it certainly doesn’t respect its women, and the canned laughter that infests the YouTube video gives the impression that it doesn’t even respect our ability to understand when a line is supposed to be funny. It feels cynical, maybe even a little mean-minded, and ultimately a huge disappointment for that reason.

My hope is that Pop Up Theatre takes a minute to figure out why they put this work out there, and what they hoped to achieve. The company is capable of so much better, and its performers and audience certainly deserve much more. In the meantime, if you want something that’s actually so bad it’s good, listen to Disney’s Goofy covering a late-90s Eurodance smash hit. I guarantee there are more laughs here.

“I Stole Satan’s Girlfriend” is available for a USD$3 donation on the Thornhill Theatre Space’s Ko-Fi page.

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.

Lim Jack Kin is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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