A new play at a new venue adds fresh air to contemporary Thai theatre
Bangkok is a favourite city with expatriates, so it is surprising that when it comes to the theatre, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Many of these expats, especially those who cannot understand the Thai language or are unaware that many Thai works are now with English surtitles, have gone as far as to call the Thai capital a theatrical desert.
Fortunately, this is gradually changing with last year’s emergence of groups like Peel the Limelights and Pico Theatre, and now Culture Collective, all of whom combine the expertise and efforts of expats with English-speaking Thais and are presenting more contemporary works than the long-lasting Bangkok Community Theatre.
After a few weeks of preview performances, veteran American playwright and director Loni Berry’s new play “The Death of Miss America” opened on May 30 at the Culture Collective Studio, an intimate black box theatre at the Chatrium Residence Riverside, not far from BTS Saphan Taksin station. This first show drew a full house – mostly expats – so many that Berry in his welcome and introductory speech apologised for starting late, explaining that they were not used to such a big crowd.
In the Miss Tomorrow beauty pageant, five finalists from Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, the US and Vietnam competed for the title, appearing first in swimsuits then evening gowns, dancing and singing the contest’s official tunes, showcasing their special talents and answering interview questions from the jury members. With some audience participation and an entertaining mockery of our fascination with the beauty pageant, the first half of the play kept the audience interested thanks to the sharp humour and good pace.
Comedy changed to drama abruptly just as the emcee was about to announce the results and Miss America collapsed on stage. This had nothing to do with typical backstage backstabbing but instead asked the audience to question, metaphorically and politically, why the US was present in this seemingly regional contest. Shortly afterwards, the play shifted from dialogue to directly addressing the audience, rather as if the playwright and director were putting his commentary on the upcoming AEC into his actresses’ mouths.
This was a thought-provoking part that had many audience members making comparisons with the ongoing problems in the European Union and realising that despite the efforts of government over the past few years, we don’t really know much about our AEC neighbours.
The five actresses, namely Suwida Boonyatistarn, Apinporn Chaiwanichsiri, Kelly B Jones, Panida Kraiwitchaicharoen, and Sarinya Olsson, were believable as beauty queens and, thanks in part to previous stage experience, each had her knock-out moments. Jones and Panida also had fun with the accents and the fact that the remaining three didn’t do the stereotypical accents made it a realistic blend, especially since the emcee’s reintroduction of them proved that they were not stereotypical beauty queens at all. The only actor in the piece – Herbert Lee Janssen in his stage debut as the emcee – couldn’t quite match the strong female cast, and looked and sounded nervous in both speech and songs. The moment when he revealed he was in fact an undercover cop was among the least convincing.
But again, a new play written in English from this region’s specific perspective is rare and that’s why the audience’s applause confirmed, and I concur, that “The Death of Miss America” is a breath of fresh air in contemporary Thai theatre. We look forward to more from Culture Collective.
Culture Collective will soon stage August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” and Terrence McNally’s “The Lisbon Traviata”. Although both will be in English, the context will be adapted to contemporary Thailand.
Next month, Berry will lead a workshop called “Project 3”. bringing together students to together create an “inter-disciplinary, multi-media presentation – a collage – designed to include everyone”.
Find out more at www.Culture-Collective.com.