Indie production house, Passerby Projects, in collaboration with Dream Bravely Pte. Ltd, returned to the stage for their second production, In Search of Salt. An original play written and directed by Sarah Howell, the play features three female actresses who grapple with the aftermath of a suicide. It explores the different stages of grief and how we each respond differently when a loved one passes away.
The main character, Gaya (Alison Wong), is Sel’s sister – a lost soul still struggling to come to terms with her sister’s passing. It is inconceivable to Gaya that Sel would commit suicide. She then goes on a quest to find out more about her sister with the help of Sel’s friend, Stefanie (Ranice Tay). From a box of Sel’s leftover artefacts, she finds out that Sel was depressed and confronts her mother (Susie Penrice Tyrie) about it.
In the midst of all that emotional turmoil, Gaya receives a Facebook message from Sel. Herein lies the main mystery of this play: Who sent Gaya those messages from Sel’s Facebook account?
Starting the whole show on your own is by no means an easy feat, but Alison Wong held her own in this. Her opening monologue was dripping with emotions – anger, desperation, sadness – at once magnified and resonating.
For anyone who has watched Leaves, Ranice Tay’s transformation from a happy-go-lucky girl to the emo and uncertain Stefanie would come as something of a shock. It’s not just the physical appearance alone that did it; her small gestures and shifty gaze helped considerably to sell the character. With her halting words and suspicious little movements, she promptly made the audience zero in on her as the one who has been Facebook-messaging Gaya.
Like all great mystery stories, the culprit was not immediately apparent. The clues were embedded in the dialogue of the three-membered cast. The audience had to actively piece the puzzle together on their own by paying close attention to what they were saying. So, exactly who sent the message? When the answer was revealed, it was a surprise. In a heart-wrenching attempt to connect with Sel, Gaya sent the Facebook messages to herself.
As a mystery-drama, this play ticks all the right boxes. The suspense was built up with the little bits of stories from each character. The development of the mystery and the big reveal of Gaya as both the target and perpetrator was masterful and unexpected.
Held at the Black Box at Centre 42, the intimate space as well as the theatre in-the-round setting puts the actresses in close proximity with the audience. Parts of the set, such as the photo frames in the house, were placed amongst the audience. The intimate and cozy setting lent empathy to the melancholic matter at hand.
This play passed the Bechdel’s test without question. However, my only gripe is that the play could have dug deeper into Sel’s character. The entire play is, afterall, largely about her; the play is aptly titled In Search of Salt (sel is French for salt). An arguably omniscient character, perhaps, but I felt that the play could have revealed more about Sel than mere conjectures from the other characters. That said, it is undeniably difficult talking about someone who doesn’t make an appearance in the play.
Multi-media is used to great effect in this play, employing the adage of “Show, Don’t Tell”. Sel did not make an appearance in the flesh throughout the play. Instead, we got to “meet” the late Sel through Gaya’s phone videos of Sel during her 21st birthday, which were displayed on two screens. And with that, the audience gets to relive the lives of Gaya and Sel through digital memories of their relationship. The videos were sweet and funny – providing a bittersweet contrast and a much needed break from the mournful actresses on stage.
With the use of new-age media, In Search of Salt also carries an alarming, but true, ailment about modern day relationships. In the course of trying to make sense of Sel by compiling a scrapbook using photos taken from Sel’s Facebook, Gaya finds out just how little she knew about her sister and what she did. Stefanie – a Facebook friend of Sel – kept abreast of Sel’s life and was more cognizant of who Sel is – than Gaya, Sel’s sister, did. We watched Gaya come to terms with the fact that she barely knew her sister at all, and to redefine who Sel, the person she knows as her sister, truly is. It speaks volumes of the dearth of real life interaction with the ones closest to us.
Whether you have made your 2017 resolutions or not, perhaps this play is a timely reminder for us to think about the time spent with our loved ones. No amount of social media sharing can equate to a catch-up with your closed ones in real life.
With In Search of Salt, Passerby Projects has proven their courage to tell raw and emotional stories in a way that resonates with their audience. They might still be flying under the radar now, but one thing’s for sure, they won’t be for long.