Three Children, an emotionally compelling and intellectually satisfying short play by the Malaysian author Leow Puay Tin, is, I find, very difficult to describe.
Martin Denton (www.nytheatre.com)
Three Children, an emotionally compelling and intellectually satisfying short play by the Malaysian author Leow Puay Tin, is, I find, very difficult to describe. That's because it's an uncommonly abstract work; it's a ride through the jungle of memory: a string of stories yet not a story itself, but rather a meditation on the idea of home and our attraction to it as an ideal and an actual place: it's not about anything but instead and always about something. Indeed, it begins, "There once was a something...a something, like a temple on a hill, a well of sweet water—where is it now?" And it ends, "Ride, ride, ride...On my horse, my faith. Ride, ride, ride. Riding among trees. Ride, ride, ride..."
In between, we spend an hour with the three title characters—a young man and two young women—who are brother and sisters, or not; who are children, or not; traveling (in the outermost layer of the complicated structure of the play) toward the place where they grew up, where one of them was given away while still a baby, where all have not been for a very long time; traveling (in the successive inner layers of this most onion-like play) through the stories and legends and fairy tales and old wives' tales they absorbed when they were growing up, and through the injustices and heartaches and unabated feelings of not belonging, of being outside, of being somehow "wrong" and "apart" that they've accreted now that they're grown.
The play takes place in Asia (specifically in Malaysia, with flashbacks to China), but what it says is resonant regardless of where you're from.
At the same time, the experience of it—for this is a play that you can't just passively watch; this is a complex work that pulls you in as participant—is undeniably alien to those used to Western theatre.
It's performed by three remarkably versatile actors, Charlotta Mohlin, Tijuana Ricks, and Rob Lok, who utilize movement, gesture, and voice to evoke many different characters and locations; under the precise, thoughtful direction of Alec Tok, they take us to all the places the play goes to, most of which are literal but many of which are metaphorical (i.e., inside human hearts). I love that this cast is multi-ethnic, thus pointing up the underlying universality of the play's themes and easing us, via familiar guides speaking unaccented English, into the world of this Chinese Opera-styled work of theatre.
There's also a narrator (uncredited in the program; is it Tok himself?) who infuses himself in the proceedings only very occasionally; and a drummer, Yuan Peng Cheng, who provides vivid ambient background on a variety of percussive devices.
There's practically no scenery at all—just a chair and a tiny stepstool—but there's lots of light (design by Mahayana Landowne), here picking out actors in tiny circles as they inhabit ever-new personalities telling us and each other their remembered stories, there flooding the playing area as those remembered tales begin to assume epic proportions, as tales will from time to time.
What are the stories about? A family torn asunder for money; another family torn asunder by lust; another family torn asunder by obsessive gambling. Compromises, manipulations, exchanges. Trying to find the right size shoes. They float by like half-remembered dreams, sometimes as little skits or playlets, sometimes just in fragments that must be pulled together.
Three Children is playful, funny at times, sad in places; it can be profoundly wise and it is, as theatre must be, fleeting and ephemeral. It's a beautiful and engaging way to pass an evening, especially in the blissfully informal surroundings (upstairs at Bennigan's restaurant) where its producers, the Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret, have housed it. UNYYC is a brand new company and, if this is indicative of what we can expect of them, one to keep both eyes on.
And playwright Leow Puay Tin, who has created this most wise, delicate, and poetic play, is an artist I hope we will see more of in the future as well.
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(Website Note: Poster featured is from the Hong Kong production; photographs showcase the Shanghai performances while the review refers to the New York rendition.)