Death – a natural phenomenon; the final phase in the cycle of life; the end game. What is it about this inevitability – for the lack of a better word – that affects the still-living?

Perhaps it’s a grim reminder of our own mortality (yes, we all come with an expiration date; what a downer); perhaps it’s the pain of never seeing a loved one ever again; perhaps it’s the regret of not saying what needed to be said until it’s too little too late.

Whatever your gripe or perception of death may be, death in a family is the theme in Eat Duck, the brilliant debut play by rising talent Zenda Tan that’s presented by Checkpoint Theatre. (Read our interview with the 23-year-old playwright here)

Confronting deep-rooted familial issues

Eat Duck follows an extended family as they soldier through an emotional seven-day Taoist wake after the passing of a grandmother figure. This death serves as a catalyst for them to come together and have difficult conversations in hopes of finding peace and closure.

Right from the get-go, Zenda paints a very realistic portrait of a Singaporean family on stage (kudos on the relatable usage of Singlish), and for 100 minutes (no intermission, so visit the restroom beforehand), the audience bears witness to the unearthing of deep-rooted issues plaguing this family.

Estranged sons, bickering siblings, seething in-laws, conflict over differences in religious beliefs – no stone is left unturned in Zenda’s writing as she explores universal problems that many families go through at varying levels of contempt and intensity.

Portraying character complexities

A material as richly-layered as Eat Duck requires actors that can convey the complexities of the characters with a certain degree of authenticity, and here we have an ensemble of 11 talented actors playing 12 characters – and not one of them looked like calefare!  

Karen Tan takes the cake for her portrayal of Karen, the elder sister who struggles to keep everything together while coping with a broken heart after her mom’s passing. 

From playing mediator between clashing siblings to defending her son’s Catholic right to be excluded from Taoist rituals, Karen masterfully embodies the pained intensity of her character like a bottle about to burst at the seams from holding too much water.

Hang Qian Chou also gets recognition for his portrayal of dual characters. As Jerry, he is frustrating to watch – in the best way fathomable – as the selfish, hypocritical brother who preaches the importance of family values that he himself does not practise.

And by simply putting on a wig, he showcases his acting versatility by turning into Eran, the estranged son who shares one of the most intense scenes and when we say intense, we mean intense – with his mother Lucy (played by Jean Ng) whom he had a falling out with.

Comedic relief

Watching Eat Duck can feel like you’re opening can after can (after can) of worms as each family drama unravels itself. It does get a little intense and uncomfortable, which is why the peppering of comedy is highly necessary to make the play palatable.

Julius Foo does a brilliant job at providing comedic relief as Michael, the funny uncle figure (and we all know that one funny uncle) whom you can always count on to ease the tension in the air with his brand of dad jokes that you cannot help but laugh at.

But the true queen of comedy here is Jean Ng as Lucy. When she’s not emoting her character’s sadness over her fractured relationship with her son, she’s cracking the audience up with her sassiness and witty comeback lines.

The only occasional downer with the script is that you may not get the punchlines unless you understand the Chinese dialect, so you can only infer that it’s funny based on the audience’s tickled reaction.

On that topic of death

At the end of the day, what you’ll appreciate about Eat Duck is how mindfully it approaches the usually morbid topic of death. On this front, Zenda used the innocence of youth as a storytelling tool to explore the human fascination with death and all of its mysteries.

Through Rene (played by Shann Sim), you’ll find yourself thinking about how simple death is through the lens of a wide-eyed, eight-year-old child.

Through the adorable teenage couple Lucas and Elisah (played by Myle Yan Tay and Victoria Chen respectively), you’ll feel a tinge of guilt as you question how valid your pain is if you lose someone whom you’ve had always taken for granted.

Sliver of hope

But what makes Eat Duck truly magical is the glimmer of hope it offers even amidst all the sadness and chaos. There are no feel-good, happy-endings here; if you’re looking for some kind of resolution, you’re not going to get it.

Instead, you get an accurate portrayal of a family. Not perfect, not drama-free, but honest, real and charmingly flawed.

To be part of a family is to ride out the highs and lows, and there’s comfort in the thought that any pain inflicted ultimately came from a place of love. You have to care about someone enough to actually give a damn on all levels of giving a damn.

All in all, the poignant writing of Zenda Tan fully realised by the brilliant direction of Checkpoint Theatre’s Claire Wong and brought to life by the staging, lighting and sound engineering of Aaron Yap, Liu Yong Huay and Shah Tahir makes Eat Duck an instant classic.

Review by: Arman Shah

Presented by Checkpoint Theatre, Eat Duck will be showing at SOTA from 29 August to 8 September 2019. For more info click here.

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