Published on November 17, 2007
Although the media hoopla may have you believing otherwise, the most significant theatrical event in Bangkok right now is not Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats" but the ongoing Bangkok Theatre Festival 2007.
For the annual showcase of traditional and modern dance and theatre productions organised by Bangkok Theatre Network, this year's theme is "Theatre Route". The network, which is the largest gathering of local professional, amateur and student theatre makers, has taken the concept to heart and is offering activities at stages all over the city.
Having watched 14 dance and theatre productions in the festival's first two weeks, it's evident to this critic that this running is the best in the six-year history of the event - in terms of quantity, quality and variety.
Drawing the loudest applause and the wildest laughter for all four of their shows over the last two weekends has been "Gi(ant)", a physical theatre collaboration between Theatre 8X8 and Babymime at Art Site, the festival's main stage on the west side of Phra Sumen Fortress.
The audience's reaction to the story of how ancient demons have escaped from tales, temples and so on, and entered the lives of modern folk - and with its staging outdoors in the middle of Bang Lamphu, we're talking about the general public, foreign tourists included, here - showed the extent to which we are ready to exercise our imaginations while watching theatre. A car chase scene, for example, was brilliantly mimed without the use of any set or hand props, just the performers' well-trained bodies.
Although the ambience of the street, the river and the nearby stages seemed like distractions at first, the mesmeric power of the performers' movements radiated through the whole of the open-air, roofless and borderless temporary playhouse.
Also thrilling the audience on the same stage during the first weekend was Ongsa Silpa's traditional Thai dance, music and theatre spectacle "Tha Tian", in which the troupe retold the history of the famous old Bangkok neighbourhood in a visually and aurally captivating way.
Another theatre veteran, Damkerng Thitapiyasak, again showed dexterity by adapting a contemporary German satire on academia into hilarious scenes of university professors fighting to reach the top floor of the tallest building in the campus. "Ta Du Dao Thao Yiab Thoe" ("Step Up") kept the audience thoroughly entertained while showing at the same time that the higher the level of education, the more ridiculous the acts of those who achieve it can be. Although the venue - Wat Sangvet School's seminar room - is away from the bustling Phra Arthit Road, set and lighting designer Thawiwat Kamnoedphet niftily transformed the space to fit the play's locale.
It wasn't surprising to discover that all four of these memorable productions will soon be re-staged elsewhere - and deservedly so, as they certainly have the life to go on beyond the festival.
It's worth noting that while commercial theatre producers like Work Point Entertainment and Scenario tend to spoon-feed audiences with melodramatic and easy-to-digest stories, the professional theatre artists of BTF's smaller companies prefer to challenge minds and take some risks.
For example, Moradokmai Troupe's "Wao Thi Thuk Chak" ("The Masturbator") staged at Joy Luck Club - which has a capacity of less than 30 seats - is an adaptation of a true story dating back to 2000 when a VCD of a high school girl's sexual activities with her boyfriend made the headlines of the national tabloids. Despite the subject matter, Tanachon Chandruang's direction was tasteful and astute.
Another example is On Box Theatre Group's frequently comical and thoroughly touching drama "Thirak Khong Kan" ("I Love You Guy"), performed on the second floor of Raka Café and Love Restaurant, which also seats about 30.
The sincerity and subtlety in the realistic portrayal of gay characters here is highly commendable and very different from the stereotypes typically seen on television and in the movies. The play demonstrates that given an intimate theatre space, the dramatic actions need not be larger than life - they can simply show life as it actually is.
Away from Phra Athit Road, the scene is similarly vibrant. From last Wednesday to Sunday, at the Crescent Moon Space in Sukhumvit Soi 55, new company Theatre 69 staged an engaging drama on the theme of paedophilia, adapted from 2007 Olivier Award-winning play "Blackbird".
Last Saturday night, at Thailand Cultural Centre's Small Hall, another newcomer, NUNi Productions, attempted to prove that watching opera could be light and fun, and succeeded with "Mozart in Mischief", their one-evening-only presentation of comic scenes from Mozart's three masterpieces. Enthusiastic audience reactions to both productions prove that we can expect more from these two new troupes and remind us that the BTF provides a much-needed platform for budding theatre companies to emerge.
This reviewer will be watching 10 more plays at the BTF this weekend, and invites you to leave your couch and television for a stimulating trip along the "Theatre Route".
The Bangkok Theatre Festival 2007 continues today and tomorrow at Phra Athit Road as well as many small playhouses.