Theatre Review: USP Productions’ “SOMNOGRAM”

By Lisabelle Tan

Photos by Michel Lim Photography

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As the intersection of desire and regret, dreams wend their way through the past, to our present, and into our future. SOMNOGRAM maps this trajectory of dreams – the residual ash of deferred dreams in the past that has led to present discontent, and the tenuous possibilities for fulfilment in a future shrouded with uncertainty.

The minimalistic stage set-up with its static, stark white angles contrast against the colourful dynamism of the characters. The actors adroitly maneuver their way within the space; leaping up, crouching down and huddling around throughout the interplay of despair and elation, solitude and solidarity, epiphanies and disillusionments.

Playing the anonymous teaching assistant, Neve the thesis student and Keita the barista respectively, three of SOMNOGRAM’s cast, Darrell Lian, Grace Ng and Naomi Lourdesamy executed piercingly poignant tirades.

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The uptight teaching assistant unravels into a bundle of nerves in a fit of shame and angst, volatile Neve brims with angst and hurt in a confessional confrontation with Alex (Shien Hian) while feisty Keita peels away her cool demeanour to reveal tender vulnerability.

Aside from spikes of tirades, the characters are often on the edge of losing it, tethered precariously to self-control. Alfred Wan as barista Desmond, and Tan Zhengjie as Reuben, Neve’s younger brother, inject much needed lightheartedness and humour to dissolve frissons of tension within and between the other characters.

A nonchalant barista who quietly observes the patrons, Desmond reveals a wicked wit and wisdom beyond his years in his rare but insightful quips. Despite minor fumbling over his lines initially, Zhengjie is convincing in his portrayal as goofy Reuben; the endearingly earnest adolescent on the precipice of (but yet to fall into) the abyss of adulthood. The interaction between the two may foretell how Reuben’s naïve idealism could cement into Desmond’s pragmatism but fall short of calcifying into Neve’s cynicism or Alex’s apathy.

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Though playing a far less expressive (but no less complex) character, Shien Hian as Alex delivers his lines pensively and powerfully, doing justice to the script written by Denise Khng, especially since Alex utters some of the most insightful and critical lines in SOMNOGRAM.

Complementing the unfolding drama on stage are the arresting aural and visual effects, nimbly handled by the lights and sound crew. The sounds are stellar – from realistic, ambient noise to the haunting howl of the wind interspersed with the ominous pulse of bass beats. The lights shuffle between harsh fluorescent, dim amber, hushed crimson and near-complete darkness from one scene to the next. Cresting with the characters’ psychological intensity and heightening suspense for the audience, the duo of light and sound was almost flawlessly executed.

Tay Kiat Long, a Year 2 Mechanical Engineering student echoes my sentiment.

“I was most fascinated by the stage design and lighting.  I love that all the furniture on stage were white, allowing the lights team to colour the stage more effectively.  Also, the tungsten spot pointed towards the audience – it forced us to literally look into the light at the end of the tunnel, ” Tay said.

However, the play was not without criticism from the audience.

Annabel Tan, a Year 1 English Literature student, said, “The actors were doing their best but the script was flatly telling the audience what to feel instead of showing us the story.”

“They used esoteric phrases which are said like they should be poignant. So the audience, while left guessing about the point of the play’s plot, is being directly told what the message is,” Tan added.

Even though there was a flurry of confusion among the general audience, some still found it “enjoyable and interesting, ” like Goh Seng Chiy, a Year 2 Chemical Engineering student and the University Scholars Club’s President, did.

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True to one of its main theme, eternal recurrence, the ending shies away from finality but still affords a semblance of closure and yet another chance to dispel regret. After all, redemption is a corollary of recurrence. As the lights dim, we too vicariously dream, of being offered a redemptive ticket to foray into the brave new world of our futures.

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