Like a waking dream, Three Children has the quality of being simultaneously real and imaginary. And this play, written by acclaimed Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin, may leave you afterward with the curious feeling that you saw something that didn't really happen, that you're remembering an event you couldn't possibly have experienced.
That is, in many ways, the point of this latest production from the Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret. That this show - like the company's previous entry this season, Most Happy - is being presented upstairs at Bennigan's on 47th Street is almost a surreal joke: The table and chairs that surround the makeshift playing space encourage the feeling of community, of shared history so important to the play, but also unintentionally invoke the sense of being in the right place at the wrong time, or the wrong place at the right time, to meet the central characters.
None of whom, it should be mentioned, exist any longer. They've been replaced by their adult counterparts, who ride off on their horses in search of spiritual cleansing, "a house on a hill" or "a well of sweet water." But such renewed life and meaning isn't easily found, and on their long, apparently fruitless journey, the three constantly drift in and out of the memories of their own pasts and the lives of the people who once lived along Kappan Road in the Malaysian town of Malacca.
As this series of usually spiritual but generally plotless stories unfolds, a picture gradually emerges of a people and a way of life that no longer exist. Memory is paramount: It's the only way these people and events can be preserved. Assuming, that is, they ever existed in the first place - the way the play is written and structured, with a great deal of repetitive, rhythmic dialogue punctuated by beats and gongs from onstage drummer Yuan Peng Cheng, you can never be absolutely sure what really happened and what's only a product of oral history.
The playwright at times seems to argue that there's no discernible difference. Director Alec Tok has even staged the production with this concept in mind - he utilizes every inch of the available playing area to create eerily beautiful stage pictures and takes advantage of the venue's natural acoustics (or lack thereof) to create an uneven texture of sound that gives every spoken line a "five seconds ago" sound. Hypnotic lighting (from Mahayana Landowne) abruptly shifts your attention from the fantasies in which the three actors are appearing to an earthbound offstage narrator, who pops up at several points to offer his own insights into the experiences of the "children."
But if Tok impresses his ability to amplify the surroundings' smallest imperfections to create an alternate universe of a playing space, the text itself demands still more than he can provide. While a longer throughline or two occasionally pops up in different guises, most characters appear for only a couple of minutes before vanishing into the mists of memory. This makes keeping track of what's happening to whom at any given time a generally fruitless exercise, and because the "children" are defined here by little more than what they remember, it's difficult to feel you ever really know them.
One can't blame performers Charlotta Mohlin, Tijuana Ricks, and Rob Lok - they suavely execute what they're given, and work hard to bring the show to life. But they all read as too mature, too sophisticated to need to regress into their pasts to find satisfaction: You never feel they're becoming their remembrances as much as playing them, which somewhat fractures the play's fragile, fabulistic façade.
This is forgivable, though - after all, how often is memory itself flawless? We're often more taunted by what we forget than by what we easily recall, and it's in this way that Three Children tantalizes with what it attempts but doesn't get quite right. Even so, the play's unique sound and haunting beauty won't allow recollections of it to escape your mind for a good while to come.
The Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret