In 1996, and more than a decade before TV’s ‘The Noose’, Singapore's first live parody show was born and staged at the Raffles Hotel’s Jubilee Hall. And it starred just a power-packed pair of comedy actors Jonathan Lim and Sean Yeo, who poked fun at Singaporeans, their way of life and such related humour on society at large.
It has been an event that theatre-goers looked forward to attending almost every year, and this year, there is more reason for you not to miss thde 16th edition.
You get to “torment” actors on stage by picking him or her to play a character, making it a surprise segment for both audience and performers at every show.
Judy Ngo (L) and Judee Tan, dressed as 'Chestnuts' characters, Yukio from 'The Wolverine' and Fantine from the movie version of 'Les Miserables'.
This year’s show, titled ‘Chestnuts 6.9 and the Less Miserable White Paper’, will run at the Drama Centre from 16 to 25 August.
The show continues to spoof all kinds of touchy topics that are the talk of the town in Singapore, so expect sketches on the sex-for-grades scandal involving a law professor, the White Paper on Singapore’s population, the misbehaving “Sticker Lady”, pastors' wives and more.
There will also be a round-up on the sheer number of musicals seen in Singapore so far this year, including ‘Les Miserables’.
Cast member Judy Ngo said: “For our mash-up of the song ‘One Day More’, each actor plays two ‘Les Miserables’characters. The mad part is, every day, the audience chooses which actor to play which characters.”
And that means all cast members have so much more to remember and it is not for the fainthearted.
“We have to learn all the different parts, learn each character's blockings (stage positions) and the maddest is trying to find a key to suit every actor’s singing range for every part. We now have one backing track and everyone just has to deal with the key.
“Can you imagine the craziness for guys chosen to sing Cosette's soprano?” Ngo asked, unwittingly tempting you to pick only the men to play Cosette.
“The adrenalin in ‘Chestnuts’is something you only get in ‘Chestnuts’,” fellow actress Judee Tan stressed.
Tan is known for her flamboyant comic characters on stage and on screen, such as the bizarre traditional chinese medicine practitioner Teo Chew Muay (a mainstay of various comedy shows by Dream Academy). She has carved a niche for herself portraying various characters from China with their matching accents, as she did in the recent Wild Rice production ‘Cook a Pot of Curry’.
Yet, she is perhaps best known as a regular on TV's long-running spoof news show, ‘The Noose’, breathlessly perfecting the cultural stereotypes of Hongkonger Rose Pok, or North Korean correspondent Kim Bong Cha.
“It was my Ris Low parody in the 2010 instalment of ‘Chestnuts’ that first caught the attention of the producers,” Tan said with a grin during an interview with inSing. Ris Low was a former Singapore Miss World 2009 who made news when she was panned and mocked by the online community for her poor English, and later stripped of her crown due to a credit card fraud.
In comparing her stint for ‘The Noose’ and on ‘Chestnuts’, Tan added: “(For) ‘The Noose’… you get the script in advance and you shoot it over several days. At ‘Chestnuts’rehearsals, new scripts for the different skits come in fresh every day, depending on Jonathan’s ideas. You get a script, you rehearse it. You get another one, you rehearse it, and so on.
“For Jonathan’s comedy, timing is very important – you're not just filming alone in front of the camera. And on TV you can take your time to change. Onstage, there's barely time... Basically, you cannot think for the entire duration of the show.”
Apart from memorising scripts and role-changing through the show’ssheer number of skits covering the broad spectrum of topics that were the talk of the town in Singapore, Tan and Ngo have also been adding to the chaos with their similar-sounding names.
“Our director Jonathan Lim has to either drag out the word 'Judeeeeeee', or bark: 'Judy!'” Ngo said with a laugh, clipping the last syllable of her name. “But he still gets two people turning or ignoring him at the same time.”
Thankfully, Tan and Ngo are sassy stalwarts who play to their different strengths, and their divergent personalities make for a cool combo.
Director-playwright-actress Ngo would probably like to have more fun like Tan.
Ngo, recently seen in ‘The Bride Always Knocks Twice’as a conflicted policewoman from Singapore's early nation-building days, said with a sigh: “All the theatre I do is a lot of serious drama.”
Behind the scenes, Ngo has also directed and written forum theatre performances in a bid to get audiences involved in pressing issues such as racism and bureaucracy.
“I look forward to doing ‘Chestnuts’ every year – it's the only time I can do more ‘ding-dong’ stuff. I do the show, let it all out, and then I'm balanced again.”
Tan confessed: “I think it's good to see such different actors portraying different types of humour. I'm the mad one. I always get the parts like the witch and ghost and prostitute, or my recurring character as Ris Low’s fictional sister Ivory Low Ai Kew (writer's note: say the name out loud) and ambassadress of the Speak Good Singlish Campaign. Judy gets the sober, serious roles.”
Yes, even in ‘Chestnuts’, Ngo is assigned the down-to-earth characters, but she makes a massive meal out of their seriousness. “My recurring character for each ‘Chestnuts’instalment is Amy Chia – as distinct from Amy Chua, Singapore's chief censor.”
Coincidentally, the fictional Chia is also from the Media Development Authority and decides what is safe for Singapore media consumers.
In the ‘Chestnuts’family, everyone does everything.
Lim, still the mastermind, is the playwright, producer, director and actor, while Tan, who is a trained dancer, is often called upon to come up with simple choreography.
Everybody has to move props and sets through the performance due to the sheer breakneck pace of the show, and everyone gets to make suggestions to contribute to the script.
However, the main contributor of ideas is the audience themselves, and of course, Lim.
“Jonathan asks the audience on Facebook what they would like to see spoofed. They give him the orders,” Tan revealed.
“After that, it's Jonathan’s writing that makes the difference. Other shows do more comedy than parody – their focus is entertainment. ‘Chestnuts’ really goes into everything. In one sketch, maybe 10 issues might be covered, and after you laugh, you go home and think, ‘Oh yeah, that's true’,” Tan said.
“And the laughter. The way the audience laughs in ‘Chestnuts’... they're literally falling off the chair. I've never seen that except in this show.”
'Chestnuts 6.9 and the Less Miserable White Paper' | Date: 16-25 August 2013 | Time: Wed-Fri, 8pm; Sat-Sun, 3pm & 8pm | Venue: Drama Centre Theatre | Address: #05-01 National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street | Tel: 68378400| Tickets: $45-$65 from Sistic