Das Experiment: Black Box Review

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By: Valerie Oliveiro

They say prison changes you. It does.

“I want to leave here, the same person I was when I entered.”

Not a chance! In a thrilling gala performance by the cast of Das Experiment on November 15, we witnessed how friends became enemies in what was supposed to be just an experiment on human behaviour. They were volunteers, a group of jovial men who gave each other friendly slaps on the back. “Get ready for your slumber party,” they laughed, referring to their stay in the experiment’s makeshift prison cells. Who would have known that their teasing would turn sinister?

It’s scary how a set of rules can turn friends against each other. Blinded, they are governed by uncontrollable feelings of power and powerlessness, of oppression and control, satisfaction and frustration, of anarchy and resistance, of status and anonymity.

Friendly guards soon become straight-laced, adhering to the rulebook (until they decide to make their own rules). The possibility of having control over the others plays in their heads like a tease. Desperation churns in the (empty) bellies of the inmates while the authoritarian Head Guard squishes them under his feet like a bug. Not surprising how the bully was once the bullied. Yes, it’s a case of rotten luck and lots of karma.

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2 tiers = Double the action

Entering the theatre, the 2-tiered arena grabs your curiosity as you make a mental note to keep an eye for any action on the upper stage. Prison cells, stand flimsy and innocent, in wait for the inmates to occupy the boxed spaces. Movable toilets associated with funerals flanks the prison cells. On a flatscreen tv, a scientist (Gerald Chew) informs us about the experiment.

At first, we wondered why the play was held at the Pavillion. What a strange choice of venue! The makeshift seats were uncomfortable, not to mention the heat (who turned the aircon off?) that got us shifting in our seats while waiting for the play to begin. Yet once the play started, we realised that the discomfort we were feeling was perhaps nothing compared to the dire situations the prisoners were in! Sitting forward, we tensed in anticipation and curiosity, wondering what else could the guards possibly do to the poor prisoners.

Das Experiment defied the common theatre rule: “Do not have your backs to the audience as the minute you turn your back, you’ll lose your them.” However, it was used remarkably well here, allowing the audience to feel like they were one of the volunteers in the experiment too. After all, like the volunteers, we DID enter The Pavillion through the very same entrance as they did and we CHOSE to be there. Although for the first few minutes all we saw were their backs, the audience connected easily with the volunteers and were gasping in shock and fury throughout the rest of the play whenever unjust acts were executed at the prisoners’ expense.

Some of the scenes where the prisoners were on the floor were hard to watch because we couldn’t see clearly. (The seats are elevated but good luck to you if there’s a tall person seated in front of you!)

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Claude Giraldi crafted the script with a witty touch to the dialogues. The quick dialogue equipped the cast with the fire they needed for the emotional build-up throughout the story. The script contorted innocent references like “Mary had a little lamb” into a dark satirical comment on dehumanisation that left us open-mouthed in shock. Even the phrase ‘alright ladies’ which initially evoked laughter from the audience and the inmates as they were dressed in flimsy smocks, later became a derogatory term we grimaced at. The guards were full of themselves, laughing while torturing the prisoners. The audience was left wondering aloud, “How can they do this? Is it right? How many times have we done that to others?”

(Sidenote: The line “Journalists are a pain!” got us sitting up attentively in our seats!)

At times, I felt that the various characters no doubt filled the stage, but hadn’t fulfilled their full potential. Some looked like calefares in the background rather than characters with a purpose. Perhaps stronger personality contrasts were needed among the characters or just more lines? Or else the more animated ones tend to overshadow the quieter characters.

In the first half, I wanted  to see more of the scientists and their observations of the escalating situation. They were occasionally spotted lurking around in the background. It would have been interesting to see the scientists’ involvement too and witness the internal dilemma with their conflicting morals. Did it occur to them that what they imposed on the volunteers would rest on their conscience? However, our patience was well-rewarded towards the end when Beatrice played a pivotal role (instead of lurking in the background).

“Remember, no violence!”, the guards warned each other. Typically, the more you tell someone not to do something, the more they’ll defy you and do it! Note that the guards told the prisoners to follow the rules, but in the end, the ‘law-makers’ themselves had deviated from the rules. Fighting scenes galore, Director Samantha Scott-Blackhall keeps us sitting up in our seats as the drama escalates. “Don’t step out of line,” warn the guards. Who would be the first to step out of line?

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The line “it’s just an experiment” is repeated throughout the play. “I wasn’t really going to do it, you know. It’s just an experiment.” But when do you stop? The play will toy with your emotions and you’ll find yourself hoping that the prisoners’ torture would end soon. (If you don’t, sadistic you.) Of course they weren’t going to stop. Not even if you paid them.

What’s in a name?

All the inmates were ‘stripped of their names’ and given numbers instead. A startling comment on individuality and identity, I realised that even as I was scribbling notes during the play, I began referring to the characters by their numbers instead! Guilty as charged!

The intermission did ease some of the tension and gave room for little pockets of discussion outside. Those who will be watching the play, please read the sign outside the theatre before going back in. Trust me, it’ll save you from much shock later! (and no, I’m not telling what it says.)

Our verdict:

The play masterly demonstrates the impressionability and obedience of people (sidenote: after all, Singaporeans are often jokingly dubbed as the world’s most obedient people) when given a legitimate reason. Illustrating the cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority, it also serves as a stern reminder of who we can be if placed in such a situation.

Do you dare find out?

“There is hardly anything done by the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.” – novelist, Terry Pratchett

Final Week Promotion!
Tickets available for $20 at the door on Tue – Thurs from 7.30pm

Das Experiment: Black Box
Dates: Nov 14 to Nov 29, 2008
Time: 8pm

Venue: The Pavilion – 28 China Street
Tickets are available from Sistic.
Tues – Thurs & Sun performances S$35
Fri & Sat Performances S$38
Senior Citizens S$28
Students S$28

Mature Themes: M16

After the Gala

Most of the guests walked over to Oosters were we celebrated with the cast and crew of Das Experiment. Handshakes and congrats all around, the cast showed no signs of exhaustion after such a tense play. But seriously, isn’t it emotionally tiring for the cast to go through this “mock-prison” each time they perform? While scooping some fries onto my plate, I recalled a part from the play – “What are you going to have when you’ve got out of here?” “French Fries… double helping of french fries…” was the prisoner’s answer. And indeed we had FRENCH FRIES at Oosters after the Gala! (two helpings, no less.)


Read our interviews with the cast of Das Experiment!
Read what others say about Das Experiment!

Watched Das Experiment? Tell us what you think!

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