Waiting for the Host review: Pangdemonium’s rendition of Marc Palmieri’s online play is risible, riveting and deeply pertinent to our times

By Chua Joel 26 October, 2020
pangdemonium waiting for the host

Amidst all the Zoom pandemonium, Waiting for the Host compels an honest reassessment of life perturbed by an ongoing, global pandemic

To watch Pangdemonium’s latest production, Waiting for the Host, is to hold up a mirror to one’s dishevelled self upon waking up on the wrong side of bed, examine the many flaws and blemishes laid bare in full view, and burst into hearty, raucous laughter – not merely in spite of, but because of it.

Marc Palmieri’s online play was written into existence not in spite of the global pandemic, but because of it; and Pangdemonium’s clever adaption of that play – delivered strongly by a solid cast – is one that resonates deeply with the uncertainty and tumult we have felt, experienced and continue to endure, even as the pandemic persists in taking its toll.

The cast could very well be you and I, the script a vague memory of a conversation we might have had ourselves, only not so long ago.

Director Tracie Pang navigates this rather novel and alien form of theatre with virtuosity and poise, suffusing the entire play with a certain dignity and lustre well-befitting of any on-stage – or should I say, on-screen production.

At its best, Waiting for the Host represents the evolving symbiosis between technology and theatre – forget social distancing, the cast never once meet in-person. Why the need to do so when they can both hear and see each other as though face to face, appearing all the time much larger than life as they do on Zoom?

At worst, Waiting for the Host will be screened to nobody. Not merely because the audience is a virtual one, but because few would wish to relive a dire reality they have been condemned to witness and call their own.

But insofar as theatre has, and to some degree always will be an escape from the real, it is also inextricably grounded in it.

The numerous quirks and oddities of teleconferencing encountered in Waiting for the Host, are thus part and parcel of the new normal we have been forced to adapt and deal with on the daily – the late appearances, the disappearances, the going off-topic, the too-many-people-speaking-at-once and of course, the Zoom-bombing.

Humour, in the case of Waiting for the Host, is employed charmingly, mediating the play’s light-hearted and jovial moments – which though profuse, nonetheless blossom to delightful, ludicrous effect – seamlessly with its contrasting bleak and doubtful overarching outlook of the future.

It is one of the production’s biggest strengths and its saving grace. Were this to be otherwise, its elements of forthrightness might come across as too transparent a depiction of pandemic reality, for an already delicate and fragile audience to stomach.

The premise of Waiting for the Host, on the flip side, is simple enough to fathom: A group of happy, well-meaning churchgoers’ attempt to stage their rather haphazard and remotely performed version of the Passion Play.

Despite the physical distance and the fact that each cast member remains confined to a rigid ‘box’ on the screen, the synergy between them is palpable. Ditzy auntie Effie (Neo Swee Lin), obviously-more-than-friends Vincent and Sara (Gavin Yap and Mina Kaye), recovered COVID-19 patient Grace (Petrina Kow) and sheepish poet-to-be Ben (Zachary Pang), are joined by egoistic outdoor theatre director Dodd (Keagan Kang), creating delirious Zoom havoc in more ways than one.

Amid the copious interjections of biblical puns and wordplay, the apparent lack of reverence alludes to a sombre, graver questioning of the powers above – the kind that inevitably arises when embroiled in a global pandemic like the one we now face. Why this? Why now (why ever)? What good is anything we do?

This is most poignantly expressed in Adrian Pang’s masterful performance as Reverend Theo, who leads the unlikely band of theatre wannabes. The times when the point of view from Reverend Theo’s webcam is enlarged on the screen, are those that Pang’s acting prowess are on full display. We see the tears slowly welling in his eyes, the ever-slight quivering of his lips; we feel his distress, even his despair, and we recognise them as our own.

For the most part, Pangdemonium’s Waiting for the Host attempts to replicate live, in-person theatre, which we have been so sorely denied and deprived of in recent months – a thoughtful and commendable gesture, at the very least. First rehearsed online over a rigorous two weeks, the play was then directed and filmed in real time, with the final production being ‘live-streamed’ each night to a limited audience of 350 people – just as it would be in a theatre.

The critics will bewail that it is not the same, the sceptics will decry that it tarnishes the purity of real, tangible theatre. They forget that by the end of the pandemic, with no foreseeable end in sight as yet, there might not be a theatre to go to.

Even as we wait for this pandemic to tide over, Waiting for the Host is a shining example of theatre’s undying relevance, especially in dark times. Its coda with Reverend Theo and Ben (the Pang father and son duo) in tight embrace, is a timely reminder that while theatre might need us, perhaps we too, might derive much-needed strength from its raw, emotive force – and more than ever, each other.

Waiting for the Host will be streamed online via Sistic Live (from Thursday to Sunday, at 9 pm; Saturday and Sunday, at 3 pm) until 1 November 2020. Tickets are priced at S$45 each