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THEATER : Keller Back at SCR After Singapore Stint

Four months in Singapore working as a theater director was more than enough for John-David Keller, who is back 22 pounds lighter at South Coast Repertory where he has just staged the annual holiday production of “A Christmas Carol.”

Keller went to that equatorial Asian city-state in June as one of the SCR entourage invited to participate in the Singapore Festival of Arts. After playing Mr. Crampton in SCR’s offering of Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell,” he stayed on to direct a local version of the Marx Brothers comedy “Room Service” as well as a musical for the opening of Singapore’s first and only amusement park.

In a city where bats may swoop among the glass skyscrapers and cobras may lurk in the rough of manicured golf courses, Keller found himself marveling at the contradictions of Singaporean society both in life and in the theater. They seemed to loom at every turn. “It got to the point where the only way to live was to stay calm,” he recalled the other day. “Some of the stuff was hysterical.”

For instance, although Singapore playgoers are starved for theater and grateful for virtually any production, they have absolutely no allegiance to an 8 o’clock curtain. The same holds true for the starting times of other events. Realizing this, Keller naturally was concerned when a 6 o’clock wedding reception was scheduled in the lobby of the building where “Room Service” was about to give its final performance.

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“They told me not to worry,” Keller recounted. “Sure enough, the wedding reception started two hours late, just when more than 900 people began arriving for the show. There was no effort to separate the groups, of course, so the people going to the show saw all these buffet tables and began helping themselves to dinner. They apparently figured that something with a title like ‘Room Service’ must have food. And the bride was going up to all these strangers and thanking them for coming to her wedding.”

Sometimes, Keller said, Singapore’s oddities worked to his advantage. None of the libraries or bookstores had any 1930s photos, which he needed to familiarize his “Room Service” cast with the look of the period. But he had no trouble getting custom-made period costumes. In fact, Singapore more than lived up to its reputation for tailors who work fast and know what they’re doing.

“We had 14 men in the show and each of them had one change,” said Keller. “We found someone who said he would do all the suits. This tailor came in on a Wednesday afternoon to take measurements and on Thursday night all the suits were delivered.”

On the other hand, few if any Singapore theater troupes use appropriate costumes or even sets to approximate the periods in which their productions take place. Keller said he discovered this when a local Chinese troupe staged Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” in Mandarin under the direction of a professional imported from Beijing.

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Keller’s “Room Service” set was basically an old SCR set from the festival which he wallpapered over--but it looked “luxurious by comparison” to the “Desire” set, he recalled. “They had a paper set. And there was no effort at all in costuming. Abby, the leading lady, lives on a New England farm during the ‘20s and is supposed to be ‘of the earth.’ They had someone wearing a cocktail dress for the entire play.”

Under the circumstances, did SCR’s visit to Singapore have any lasting influence? Did “You Never Can Tell” simply dazzle with Edwardian frills? Did its other festival offering, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” merely titillate with partial nudity and profane language?

“We certainly made an impression on the arts community,” Keller said. “Both productions were discussed and articles about them appeared in the newspapers long after SCR was gone.”

But the government, which provides or arranges for the funding of the multimillion-dollar festival every two years, was not moved to increase its support for any of the indigenous arts groups. These groups are not only starved of funding between festivals, Keller said, but the government continues to censor them as strongly as ever.

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“It turns out the festival was just a front,” he contended, “a fresh paint job that it could point to and say, ‘Look what we’re doing for the arts.’ ”

If Keller were not describing the situation in Singapore, you might think he was drawing inferences about some of the problems faced by troupes in Orange County during the past year.


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