(Actress Munah Bagharib and Actor Luke Kwek)
“now then again” was a beautifully delivered play that left one’s heartstrings pulled, raw and shuddering. Staged by the NUS Theatre Ensemble and based on the original play by Penny Penniston, “now then again” entwines a love story with the possibilities of quantum physics. The play explores the concept of a mirror universe where events in this world are reversed in another. Could an unrequited love in this universe be a passionate relationship in another?
Ginny, a brilliant physics undergraduate, is doing an internship at a quantum physics laboratory. She meets Henry, a theoretical physicist who has a severe phobia of speaking in public. Sparks fly as their complementary personalities engage. Spunky, confident Ginny pulls the grumpy and shy Henry out of his shell, helping him realize the joy of social connection. However, one thing stands in the way of their blossoming romance – Ginny is engaged to be married to her primary school sweetheart, Chris.
“now then again” had a talented cast that gave a strong performance. Munah Bagharib played the many nuances of Ginny’s character with ease – visionary physicist, faithful friend, and playful lover. Luke Kwek, playing Henry, slipped skilfully into the character’s many skins – anxiety-ridden scientist in one reality, confident creature in another.
Natasha Kleinman, as the dominatrix Dr Trousant, perfectly channeled the role of the boss-from-hell. She played a wonderful game of cat-and-mouse with Henry, playing the predatory boss with an almost vindictive glee.
Perry Shen played the role of Ginny’s husband, Chris. The tense stand-offs between Chris and Henry were well-played, and the audience burst out laughing at a charming one-liner delivered by Chris – “We should be friends”. The menace underlying that offer of friendship was only one of many ways in which the tension between Chris and Henry was expressed.
Finally, there was Felix the janitor, who formed the entire crux of the play. Felix was charmingly played by Choi Yik Heng, who brought all her whimsy and playfulness to bear upon the role. A small, cheerful creature in a denim overall, Felix is Henry’s only real friend in the entire laboratory, and she pushes Henry to pursue Ginny. Felix has a gift for seeing alternate realities, which she often confuses with the one she is currently in. “Hurry!”, she urges Henry one day. “You’ll meet her under the burnt out light-bulb.” They rush to the burnt out light-bulb, where Felix expects to meet Ginny, but they do not see anyone apart from two strangers getting married.
Felix predicts events in the future that don’t come true, and remembers encounters between Ginny and Henry that never happened. “You danced under the stars,” she insists. “You bumped into each other and spilled coffee on each other’s shirts.” Henry knows that all these never happened. Yet Felix knows that they did.
They are both correct.
The climax of the play is the scene where a heartbroken Henry sends Ginny off. “We have a whole future together,” Henry confidently tells Ginny, who is about to leave for her honeymoon with Chris. “We just don’t remember it yet.”
After that, the narrative takes an ingenious turn. Everything about the play has built up gently to this final twist, where suddenly everything we think we know becomes overturned.
The narrative deconstructs itself. We speed back into the past, and the plot progresses backwards in a symmetrical mirror image of previous scenes. Everything is the same, but slightly different.
We revisit the scenes with Ginny and Chris. They are still in love, but this time, their marriage is shot through with insecurity and jealousy.
We go back to Henry’s public speaking scenes. He is still socially anxious, but now he has a spark of confidence that he lacked earlier. He starts to chase the girl.
In this mirror image of reality, Ginny and Henry finally, at last, dance under the stars.
“now then again” was a heartbreaking play in that we never knew which version of reality prevailed. The universe in which Ginny chooses Henry, and the universe in which Ginny chooses Chris, are both presented as equally valid possibilities.
No single version of reality is ‘meant to be’ the only correct version. As Ginny says with conviction, “I don’t believe in destiny.” When Chris asks her, wasn’t it destiny that we ended up together? Ginny cuts into his romanticism, saying, “That’s not destiny. That’s probability.”
The concept of the mirror universe was well explored. On a conceptual level, it was interesting that Ginny chose a worldly and confident man in one reality, and an intellectual neurotic in another. On the level of details, there were deft touches of inspiration in the play, where certain actions done with the actors’ left hands in the earlier half were performed with their right hands in the later half, to reflect the ‘mirror image’ theme.
Finally, lighting, sets and sound came together wonderfully to create a sensory environment for the audience. Multimedia designer Koo Chia Meng, who has worked on films such as Ilo Ilo, created a varied palette of colours and textures for the set, from the simple play of shadows and light to the dazzling stars of the night sky. Set designer Hay Teow Kwang worked wonders within the minimalist constraints of the play, creating a convincing universe using mostly suspended white squares and a single burnt out light bulb. Award-winning sound designer Benjamin Lim Yi provided the emotional soundscape of the play using only simple sonic materials – piano and strings, for the most part. Only in the scene where Ginny and Henry danced under the stars did the music really swell – a strong, warmly pulsating rhythm that singled out this scene as special.
As Ginny says, most atom collisions are unremarkable. Once in awhile, though, you get involved in a collision that truly changes your life. Perhaps not in this lifetime, but somewhere else, in a past we have yet to remember.
(Abstract choreography scene by the cast)
Image Credits: All images are from the NUS Arts Festival Facebook page