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Alena Murang soars to new heights with release of debut EP

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On my first visit to the Land of Hornbills in 1998 I was convinced that it was dangerous to stay more than a week. Many of the native Sarawakians I met, both men and women, were so friendly, fun-loving and enchanting, one could only too easily become enamored, ensnared… end up marrying a local and becoming a permanent resident.

Since James Brooke’s appointment as White Rajah of Sarawak in 1842, adventurers, explorers and fortune-hunters the world over have found themselves mesmerized by the exotic allure of Borneo. Unable to leave, they have fortuitously enriched its gene pool.


Mathew Ngau with star student Alena  

Alena Murang is a wonderful example of this delicious blend of adventurous and indigenous DNA. Her father is a Kelabit of noble lineage, her mother Anglo-Italian. At 27 she is a fully accomplished visual artist as well as musician – having learnt from young to play virtuoso sape’ under the skillful tutelage of Mathew Ngau, Sarawak’s legendary sape’ master.

In August 2016 Alena released her debut EP, titled Flight, featuring fresh interpretations of five folksongs from two highland tribes, Kelabit and Kenyah. Arranged and produced by her cousin Josh Maran and Inna Dudukina of Pepper Jam Productions, Flight evocatively captures the lyrical, mystical essence of native traditions endangered by rapid, relentless modernization.


Alena Murang performs at the Rainforest World Music Festival 2016 (photo courtesy of the Sarawak Tourism Board)


Josh Maran, arranger/producer

Alena’s alluring, mellifluous voice lends an angelic purity and ethereal dimension to the earthy simplicity and soul-soothing quality of these enchanting longhouse ditties. Her consummate skill on the sape’ and other instruments like the pagang (tube zither) gives a polished sheen to the entire production. Growing up between two worlds – the indigenous and the cosmopolitan – she effortlessly bridges both. The result is a melodious (and slightly melancholy) compilation of Kelabit and Kenyah songs with a refreshing contemporary sound and spirit.


Inna Dudukina, arranger/producer

Artistically as well as technically, Alena Murang’s Flight is an exquisite achievement and a monumental contribution to our efforts to preserve the cultural past. It creates new pathways into the hearts of ethnic music lovers everywhere with its enchanting lyricism and haunting atmosphere; and the inclusion of modern instruments like the clarinet, bass guitar, harp, and cello in the musical mix makes Flight pleasurably accessible to the modern ear, opening up boundless opportunities for the ancient sound of the Borneo rainforest to travel around the globe.

What sets Flight apart from many previous attempts to create an ethnic fusion sound is its impeccable taste and confident musicality. It never attempts to pander to popular taste, thereby destroying the innocence of these folksongs; nor does it lack in authentic passion and verve (which often happens when young people are trained to mechanically perform traditional music or dance at cultural events).

Sarawak has suffered a tragic loss of its natural beauty and biodiversity under the overlong misrule of robber barons. Yet it has produced an artist as gifted, dedicated and accomplished as Alena Murang. You do us all very proud, Alena.

Her debut EP can be downloaded on iTunes from

3 October 2016




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Antares reviews The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral


Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002)

I have the greatest admiration for Kuo Pao Kun’s consummate skill and integrity as a playwright. In 1986 Five Arts Centre was refused a police permit for Kuo’s monodrama, The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole, and had to stage it privately for a small audience -which only accentuated the power of his pungently satirical look at bureaucratic inanity and the ethos of conformity.

With The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral – what an evocative title! – the eminent Singaporean playwright once again displays a scintillating ability to seize upon a crystalline metaphor and hold it up to the light of intelligent scrutiny so that it reflects on a myriad of complex issues – historical, philosophical, political, psychological, and ontological.  The themes Kuo touches upon in this text-driven drama are at once topical and timeless, culture-specific and universal.  The saga of the great eunuch admiral of the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) is undoubtedly a fascinating one, and I am grateful that Five Arts Centre has brought it to my attention by staging it. I’m not entirely pleased about the way it was presented, but that is secondary. More about that later.


Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433)

Zheng He’s name at birth was Ma Sanpao. He belonged to a Central Asian tribe known as the Semur which converted to Islam before migrating to Yunnan Province.  When the Chinese army invaded Yunnan in 1382, the 11-year-old Ma Sanpao was taken captive, and given as a slave to Prince Zhu Di who would later seize the Ming throne as the Emperor Yong Le. The megalomaniacal Yong Le was determined to extend the glory of the Ming to the far ends of the earth.  Having rebuilt the Great Wall so that China’s rear end was covered, so to speak, he conferred on his brave and trusted eunuch warrior, Ma Sanpo, the new name of “Zheng He” and offered him the title, “Admiral of the Western Seas.”

Between 1405 and 1433 Zheng He embarked on seven voyages that established Chinese naval and diplomatic supremacy in 36 countries and took him as far as the African continent.  Zheng He’s fleet was truly massive. One biographer writes: “No other nation on earth had ever sent such a fleet onto the ocean. It included sixty-two large ships, some 600 feet long, larger than any other on the seas. Hundreds of smaller vessels accompanied them.” On certain voyages Zheng He’s Grand Fleet carried as many as 28,000 crew and the decks were lined with huge tubs of earth for planting vegetables and fruit trees.  According to some accounts Zheng He died at sea, and we shall never know if he was buried with his “missing parts” as was customary for imperial eunuchs.  The Chinese believed that the deceased could otherwise never reincarnate as a man.


Indisputably the dominant global maritime power of the early 15th century

The next Ming Emperor was an isolationist and his scholar-ministers ordered that Zheng He’s maritime logs be destroyed.  Around this time the Portuguese seafarers began their exploratory voyages, soon to be followed by the Dutch, the Spanish, and the English.  If China had but maintained her mastery of the oceans, we would now be living under the emblem of the Dragon instead of the Eagle, the Tiger, or the Hyena.

Kuo does not dwell on the geopolitical theme in Eunuch Admiral. Instead he muses on the private thoughts and feelings of this great adventurer whose monumental exploits were largely forgotten until the 1930s – when a stone pillar inscribed with a detailed record of Zheng He’s seven voyages was found near a temple dedicated to the Celestial Spouse (a Taoist goddess) in Fujian Province.


Jeff Chen’s restaging of Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral  in 2015

Alone on deck upon a quiet evening at sea, did Zheng He dream of a world beyond power-seeking and oppressive hierarchies, a world where every man is a king in his own kingdom, free to pursue a life of ease and nobility?  A world where espionage, palace intrigue, and torture chambers are unheard of?  Kuo speculates on Zheng He’s possible rôle in the establishment of an Imperial lntelligence Agency during the eight-year hiatus in his seafaring.  Even though he had no testicles, Zheng He must have been an awesomely charismatic and inspiring leader of men to have successfully commanded – and with such heroic aplomb – the fabulous Imperial Fleet.  Ah, but the cruelty of being castrated at puberty so that he could serve his ambitious Prince without a thought for his own posterity…


Cultural emasculation of Zheng He’s descendants (from the 2015 production)

The theme of castration, of course, is central to the play and the text capitalizes on the curious blend of horror, fascination and ticklish humor eunuchry provokes. A graphic account of emasculation through the ages is gleefully enacted, whereby we learn that Zheng He would surely have been buried intact, had he been born a few centuries later, when well-born eunuchs were painlessly rendered infertile through protracted scrotal massage by professional gonad crushers. (We could revive this practice as a voluntary form of male contraception. Why not? It sounds excruciatingly and promiscuously pleasurable, and so much more humane then simply hacking it off.)

nooseAs a metaphor, castration can be self-imposed on a cultural, social and political level whereby a minority race – paradoxically as a survival tactic – becomes subservient to the hubristic egocentricity of a would-be Master Race.  The irony isn’t lost on us, in view of the primal politics of ethnicity that continues to be used as a weapon against those seeking liberation from ideological injustice and fascism. And what about the self-serving, self-castrating corporate climbers who wear their severed genitals around their necks as a symbol of their unmanhood?

Admiral Zheng He is the ultimate enigma: warrior, seafarer, strategist, diplomat, trader, imperial emissary, chief of the Chinese secret service, and eunuch by circumstance. Muslim by birth, yet a worshiper of the Sea Goddess and the Celestial Spouse. What a rich resource for epic dramatization!

Chee Sek Thim’s directorial vision, unavoidably perhaps, bears the imprint of his youthful stint as a Marion D’Cruz dancer; and the overwhelming influence of theater luminaries like Krishen Jit and Leow Puay Tin (whose 1988 production of 3 Children remains a stylistic milestone in Asian theater).  Sek Thim is a gifted and intelligent theater practitioner who will hopefully develop his own dramaturgical perspective, given time.  For taking on such a complex work as his directorial debut and bringing to life such a thought-provoking play, I wholeheartedly applaud his courage and gumption.


Ida Mariana

The enthusiastic and talented cast of three men and two women impressed me with their acrobatic stamina, discipline and total dedication to the performance. Yet I felt they were self-conscious and uncomfortable with the all-too-predictable, overly choreographed movements.

Both the women (Ida Mariana and Zoë Christian) seemed more in command of themselves, while the men (Mark Choo Hoong Leong, Lim How Ngean, and Mark Teh) generally came across as a bit too effeminate. But perhaps I’m being unreasonable in demanding more sinew and virility in a play about a Grand Imperial Eunuch.

11 November 2000

Why Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral matters

Ah, Sweet Nostalgia!

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The Horfield Theatre Company’s October 2015 staging of A Slice of Saturday Night

Antares relives his teen years at A SLICE OF SATURDAY NIGHT

Some things you never forget. Like learning to French-kiss and finding yourself on Cloud Nine with a sore tongue and simply adoring the sensation. At 15 I was in the habit of “borrowing” my dad’s car and going to parties where some of the couples danced joined at the loins through the night. Never mind the discomfort of heavy petting in bucket seats of small cars parked in dark nooks or the buzz of mosquitoes in the syrupy night air dripping with pheromones.


Sharizan Borizan

I was pretty glad to have caught Music Theatre’s replay of A Slice of Saturday Night on a Saturday night, but disappointed to find the house only half full. Doing theater in the Klang Valley is no picnic, it would appear. Give them musical comedy, light’n’easy, do it with gumption and gusto… and still they stay away. Right after the show I found myself SMSing half the contacts in my phonecard, telling them to go see the last matinee performance on Sunday, and I’m glad at least a few heeded my advice and went. Like me, they loved the show!

Perhaps I’m really just a conservative when it comes to theater, because this 1989 rock’n’roll musical by the Heather Brothers (whoever they are) is about as middle-of-the-road and mainstream as you can get.  And retro 1960s to boot.  In the end it’s not WHAT you do but HOW you do it that matters. The genre is irrelevant – as long as there’s zest and zing in the effort.

Liau Siau Suan.jpg

Liau Siau Suan

Zest and zing abounded in this repeat performance (with a slightly different cast from the 1998 version) directed by Andy Cranshaw.  It’s a rare treat to find a show with no weak links. Every member of the cast – including the live 4-piece band and the barman (admirably played by Liau Siau Suan who also managed front of house duties, don’t ask me how he did it) – was very good indeed, though a few were particularly outstanding (but more about individual performances later).

The set was simple but utterly right: I stepped into the the Actors Studio Theater in Bangsar and found myself sitting in the Club A-Go-Go, magically transported back to the mid-1960s as soon as the band struck the opening chord. Okay, so the plot was basically Jack and Jill went on the pill, and started a sexual revolution. The songs – all 28 of them! – were parodies of 1960s pop hits by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Burdon and the Animals, the Dave Clark 5, Helen Shapiro, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, and Cilla Black. But they were good parodies, slickly executed by a totally pro band led by Helen Yap on keyboards, Mohd Yusoff Ibrahim aka Chobib on lead guitar, David Yee on bass, and Soegito Buno on drums.


Nell Ng

Nell Ng played the peroxide blonde bombshell Penny and the very pregnant Shirl, and choreographed all the slinky moves. I’ll say it again: this girl is simply too amazing! Llewellyn Marsh made a superb Eddie, all awkward and gangly but perfectly lovable all the same.  Radhi Khalid was the supreme cad as Gary and quite funny as Terry the prototype hippie.  It’s hard to picture anyone but Derrick T as Eric “Rubber Legs” Devine, former rocker and owner of Club A-Go-Go. In the original UK production, “Rubber Legs” had a different surname (DeVere) but that’s quite irrelevant. Devine was fine with me, even if his stagey guffaw was rather diabolical – Mr T tossed off his lines and rocked through his solo numbers with inimitable flair and style.


Radhi Khalid

Sharizan Borhan (a recording artist by day) was a marvelous Rick and it was a sheer delight to hear him sing. It was especially wonderful to see the chemistry between him and Sharon, exquisitely played by Samantha Lee (who’s married to Sharizan in real life).

Mary George has always turned in a solid performance and, as Gary’s long-suffering girlfriend Sue, she was totally convincing.  Newcomer Jaime Gooi was only slightly stiff as Frigid Bridget the ice queen, but I suppose that was in keeping with her stage character. A large part of the plot involves Eddie’s reckless boast to the guys that by the end of the night he’d succeed in getting Bridget to touch his crotch – and going on looks alone, most of the men in the audience wouldn’t have objected too strenuously if Ms Gooi had done exactly that to them.

A Slice of Saturday Night may be no more than an excuse for a highly entertaining evening of song and dance, but song and dance are Music Theater’s forte after all. I’d gladly see it again, preferably in the company of a nubile 18-year-old, but even an old flame will do.

25 July 2002


















‘Storming Destiny’ Gains Thunderous Applause

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Shantona Kumari Bag’s solo Bharata Natyam debut keeps Antares on the edge of his seat and restores his optimistic outlook

Whenever I get invited to a show in KL these days I experience a mild anxiety attack. You see, it’s a 3-hour drive to the city and back from my mountain hideaway; and since the price of petrol shot up and my van’s air-con system broke down, these excursions have become drastically more arduous. I usually manage to find a few good reasons to stay home – but on the evening of July 27th, as the musicians took their place on stage and the lights went up on the stunning set of Storming Destiny, I felt extremely privileged to be present.

Every aspect of the production restored my faith in the possibility of total excellence – from Sivarajah Natarajan’s brilliant lighting and set design to the impassioned and impeccably performed live music. And, certainly, the sheer poetry and precision of Shantona’s epic dance was no less than a divine revelation. It seemed to me she had fully internalized the choreography and was simply reveling in the ecstasy of pure expression. This became more obvious as the 24-year-old dancer warmed up during the second sequence, Jatiswaram, and from there on, surrendered her whole being to embodying the Dance of Life itself. By the time she launched herself into the climactic Thillana, Shantona had sections of the audience cheering and gasping at her virtuosity. She received a well-earned standing ovation.


Though I am by no means an authority on or even knowledgeable about Bharata Natyam, I sensed that this was an entirely fortuitous and ground-breaking collaboration of remarkable talents. Storming Destiny successfully navigated the hazardous artistic seas where innovation collides with tradition. Shantona Kumari Bag injected a palpable intelligence and self-assured awareness into Jayanthi Subramaniam’s robust choreography and made it her own; she also broke with tradition by adding a contemporary feel to her arangetram (solo debut) with her self-penned poetic narration and the inclusion of dramatic devices – like bringing her younger sister Shobhna Devika on stage as her alter ego.


Bharata Natyam performances are famously taxing on the dancer as well as the audience. Quite often in the past I have found myself closing my eyes and drifting away, usually towards the middle of the show. However, my attention did not falter for an instant throughout Storming Destiny. So riveting was Shantona’s stage presence, and so exhilarating her joy, that time seemed to accelerate and space expand, energizing me on a deep, cellular level.

shantona-dancer2We have in Shantona Kumari Bag a very determined and strong-spirited young dancer who will soon be affectionately referred to as “the dancing doctor.” Currently a fifth-year medical student at the University of New South Wales, Australia, Shantona took a year off to reclaim her divine gift of dance – having decided against sacrificing her artistic nature to the rigorous demands of medical science. Instead, she would make a bold attempt to combine her true passion with her chosen vocation (she comes from a family of doctors). Storming Destiny proved conclusively that it can indeed be achieved – and with magnificent aplomb too.

shantonaFB2As a young student at Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra Dance Academy, Shantona displayed a fondness and flair for Odissi (an expressive, almost sensual dance form from Orissa, India) – excelling particularly in abhinaya, the esoteric art of portraying a whole spectrum of emotions through one’s physical form. Perhaps the mental discipline of her medical studies helped steel Shantona’s resolve to master the more formal technique of Bharata Natyam.

Ramli Ibrahim, who ranks among the world’s best male Odissi dancers (earning the highest praise from connoisseurs and critics during a recent tour in India), has an unerring nose for talent. Over the decades he has wet-nursed the birth of at least a dozen dancing stars in the Classical Indian Dance firmament – including the likes of Geetha Sankaran, Mavin Khoo, Guna, Rathimalar Govindarajoo, January Low, Revathi Tamilselvam, and Vidhya Puspanathan. Shantona Kumari Bag undoubtedly deserves a prominent place in Sutra’s permanent hall of fame.

shantonaFBAnother outstanding performance at Storming Destiny was delivered by the musicians comprising Gomathi Nayagam (vocals), Jaya Sekhar (veena and violin), Theban Arumugam (mridangam), A. Perampalam (flute), and Ashok Kumar (tanpura) – with Ramli Ibrahim doing an absolutely masterful job of timekeeping on the nattuvangam. Gomathi Nayagam (who currently teaches at the Singapore Fine Arts Society) blissed out the audience with the celestial beauty of his voice and his flawless pitch.

An unexpected bonus on the first night of Storming Destiny was the marvelously humorous and touching speech by guest of honor Toh Puan Uma Sundari Sambanthan. Everyone present shared the profound pleasure and pride that Shantona’s parents, Drs Arun Kumar Bag and Mridula Kumari, must surely have felt.

When the very air we breathe is befouled with pollutants – and the banal misrule of mediocrity seems oppressively unchangeable – an event as consummately produced and aesthetically gratifying as Storming Destiny becomes all the more therapeutic and laudable. I salute Ramli Ibrahim and Sutra for being such good medicine for the soul. And, of course, for nurturing such quintessential talents as Shantona Kumari Bag and for giving Malaysians a genuine cause for celebration.

14 August 2007

[First published in the New Straits Times, 24 August 2007. Photographs courtesy of Shantona Kumari]

She’s A Shooting Star! 

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How did I meet Karen Nunis Blackstone? In the late 1980s the Blues Gang had a rambling old house in Titiwangsa and Karen lived next door. She sang a couple of Janis Joplin songs and sounded just like her. I couldn’t believe the power of the voice coming out of that exquisite but frail-looking songbird. She couldn’t have been more than 16 (but in fact was 21).

Turns out I knew Karen’s dad, Larry D’ Vincent – best-known among the St Paul’s Hill painters of Malacca, and he could really sing the blues after a few drinks. He wore a beret at all times and had a brief unhappy affair with surrealism. Larry was a larger-than-life Kerouac-type character. Maybe someday someone will make a movie about Karen’s dad.

eva-lunaOr, better yet, Karen’s mum, Mabel Barr, who raised three talented kids, mostly through sheer perseverance. They could all sing and draw, and they all had a certain magic about them. Maybe they escaped from an Isabel Allende novel. I had a copy of Eva Luna that featured Karen Nunis on the cover. In any case, the gazelle-like beauty that adorned Ms. Allende’s book looked so much like Karen I photographed it and sent her a print.

Karen was always drawing and singing and writing strange little stories to amuse herself and her siblings, Virginia and Leo. One day I was introduced to an American guy named Brad Blackstone, who taught English and wrote Zen poems on the side. Karen’s svengali boyfriend is now her husband, business manager and producer. He calls himself “Daddy Peet” and tells fabulous tales of acid adventures with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Another character out of a novel, maybe a Tom Robbins novel. Daddy Peet married Karen and whisked her off to Japan where he taught at an American university. They now have two beautiful offspring: one a lovely angel child named Billie Blue (age 4) and the other a lovingly produced newborn album on their own Songbird label. Give Me Sanity it’s called, and that’s what most of the songs are about.



‘Sisters of Mercy’ by Karen Nunis

With Daddy Peet’s encouragement, Karen kept at her drawing and painting and within a few years developed an elegant, magical surrealist style of her own which successfully fulfills artistic as well as commercial criteria. Rumor has it that Bob Dylan bought one of Karen’s paintings at an exhibition Daddy Peet arranged for her in California. Besides having had many shows in Japan, Karen has exhibited several times in Kuala Lumpur and her work has invariably been warmly received and well patronized.

Before she left for Akita, Japan, to be with Daddy Peet, Karen sent me a bunch of words she thought could be set to music. I fiddled around with the lyrics for a while and told Karen I thought they had real potential, but it would be great if she learnt to play the guitar herself and came up with tunes for her own songs. Well, she did, and now she composes together with Daddy Peet, a beat poet born out of time, who plays the blues harp at all of Karen’s gigs and on Sanity.

Karenina2The album features 12 sparsely arranged tracks favoring Karen’s strong, throaty voice and savvy, sophisticated lyrics. The album is inspired by and in memory of Leo Christopher Nunis, Karen’s kid brother, who was stabbed to death by a deranged neighborhood vagabond. At 22, good-looking Leo was happily married to a sweet English girl and was getting real funky on the guitar. He played me a few of the songs he was working on, and they sounded really promising. His passing was a senseless, tragic bereavement that stunned everyone who knew the Nunis family. Karen’s sister Virginia – who’s been singing on the hotel circuit – does a couple of backing vocals on Give Me Sanity.

karenina3In late 1999 Karen, Daddy Peet and Billie Blue were in KL for 8 weeks. I only saw them once, over a delicious meal prepared by Mabel Barr. Billie Blue charmed and amazed me with her precocity. She looks like Karen in miniature but has her daddy’s prominent forehead. None of them had gained an ounce in weight, which is always a good sign. They were all psyched up to sequester themselves at FAT Productions with ace engineer Al Tutin and cut themselves an hour’s worth of good music. Karen played me her demo cassette and asked who they should rope in on bass. Well, in this town three names immediately come to mind when you’re talking bass: Andy Peterson, David Yee, and Tommasso Cecere. They called in the crazy Italiano, who lugged his double bass down to the studio. How about drums? Three names that sprang to mind were Zahid Ahmad, Jerry Felix, and Gary Gideon. Gary wound up on the album credits. One afternoon I called Mabel’s house and a Japanese guy picked up the phone. It was Yuki Kasai, Karen’s regular guitar player in Akita, who had flown in for the recording. The next time I phoned, Mabel announced that Karen, Daddy Peet and Billie Blue had returned to Akita. The recording was more or less done but they still had some loose ends to tie up. Drat! I’d missed them by a few hours.

cdkarenIn July 2000 Karen emailed me with the exciting news: FINALLY her album was ready, liner notes, nifty packaging, press kit and all. Could she send me a CD and, er, would I review it? Well, having heard her demo I knew it was safe to say yes. Karen couldn’t possibly do anything badly anyway. There was only one problem: As someone who has watched Karen Nunis Blackstone grow up and flower as an artist and a singer, I’d find it hard to give her the full measure of praise she truly deserves. An unmitigated wholehearted rave review would sound too much like avuncular pride. But it’s a risk I’m perfectly happy to take.

Karen Nunis Blackstone is possibly the most charismatic and talented individual I know, and I’m pleased to think she regards me as an old friend. As if it weren’t enough that she can paint and sing so beautifully, she’s also been blessed with this maddeningly demure sex appeal. Mabel Barr, you have every right to play the role of Proud Mama. And, Larry – wherever you are, whatever you’re up to – you just have to be grateful your genetic potential has been so magnificently fulfilled.

23 July 2000

[First published in The Star, July or August 2000]




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Antares checks outs the full-blooded reincarnation of Jit Murad’s “simple little piece”


Jit Murad

“My critics are rarely as clever as me,” quips Jit Murad in his playwright’s notes.

I don’t know anyone else who can get away with a comment like that, even though he’s probably just stating the obvious. Puckish charm and ebullient wit aside, Jit Murad is indisputably a storyteller par excellence. And he has the medicine man’s healing touch. His characters are parodies of people you’re likely to encounter in Brave New Malaysia, but he has a knack of redeeming them even as he pokes gentle fun at them.

I caught a draft version of Visits in December 2001 when Ida Nerina showcased it for her directorial debut. It was lighthearted and enjoyable, and showed great promise – considering its humble beginnings in 1994 as three short monologues written for a reading by three actresses – Liza Othman, Sukania Venugopal, and Ida Nerina (who kept the only surviving copy of Jit’s original typewritten text).  In any case, the play was warmly received and this inspired Jit and Ida to flesh out and fine-tune the material for a full-blooded production, incorporating a multimedia screen and original music by Anton Morgan.


Liza Othman

Visits is a wonderful workout for three accomplished actresses and does well enough without the frills. The pre-programmed screensaver effects (designed by Helena Song), though restrained and tasteful, did not add significantly to the production. Indeed, the kinetic backdrop occasionally detracted from the live action, and kept reminding me I was in a theater.  The key elements have to be the performers and the stories they tell. But sensitive lighting certainly helps, and Teo Kuang Han did a laudable job with the mood shifting.

The opening monologue by the loquacious nurse – a delightful character endearingly recreated by Liza Othman – is a tough bit of business for any actress. When she launches into the lengthy anecdote about the Mamak trader locking his wife in the basement with her maidservant each time he goes out of town, details tend to get lost, along with credibility. Hard to put a finger on the problem here, but I felt a bump the first time around too. Once past that point, the nurse comes into her own and becomes gloriously human and huggable. Liza Othman is a perennial pleasure to watch in action, so charged with warmth and earthy femininity is she.


Vanidah Imran

Vanidah Imran was simply fantastic as Woman. Incredible empathy and appeal framed in unfeigned vulnerability. I badly wanted to take her to the movies and buy her a cappucino afterwards (preferably spiked with psilocybin). This Woman’s a soulsister, pulak! Lots of soul, a warm, befriendable presence on stage. And she looks so comfortable in satin pyjamas.

The catalytic rôle of Sister-in-Law was taken on by Sarah Shahrum, who took a few minutes to warm up the night I caught the play (perhaps she was conscious of her father’s bow-tied presence in the auditorium; or maybe the delayed response was simply my adjusting to not seeing her in a designer tudung, the way Sofia Jane played it). Once she lost herself (or I got used to her) in the character, her performance was impressive. Sarah Shahrum has exquisite poise and the potential to develop into a very fine actress.


Sarah Shahrum

Seeing the play in its fresh incarnation allowed me to view it in a somewhat different context than as a directors’ workshop exercise. Was it intended as a study of three contemporary Malay women from different social backgrounds? Was the playwright using the monologues as subtle commentary on class conflicts within the ummah (the Malay Muslim community)? True, there were references to skin-tone prejudice (“Takes a lot of money to lighten your complexion, if you’re born with dark skin.”)  And the fact that the office boy who gets hanged for possession of cannabis is named Hakim (judge) – was that a veiled criticism of our barbaric drug laws or a weak pun on “hanging judge”?

The playwright himself sounded a bit defensive in his program notes: “The three women were intended to sound as if Tennessee Williams had written a Cerekarama (Malay TV drama).”  He swears he intended no “wanky grand unifying idea.”

An intellectual Malay friend who discussed the play with me afterwards wasn’t particularly bowled over by the proceedings. “People don’t talk like that in real life,” she protested. Obviously, not everyone in the Klang Valley is a fan of Jit Murad, Tennessee Williams, or Cerekarama.


Ida Nerina, director

Speaking for myself, I was charmed by Jit’s ability to always identify the core of humanity in his characters and give them the opportunity to reveal their hidden virtues. Indeed, I found myself touched by the play’s essential poignancy and compassion. The vivacious talent that Visits has brought to the stage is also something to applaud. Indeed, it was Visits that got Liza Othman to grace the boards once again, after a long absence. And it was Visits that introduced superb actresses like Vanidah Imran and Melissa Saila (who played Woman in the earlier version) to English-language theater. And it was Visits that lured the delectable Sofia Jane back to the stage as the Sister-in-law in the first production – and introduced Sarah Shahrum’s acting skills to a whole new audience. Visits may never be acclaimed as the finest example of Jit’s work as a playwright, but the goodnatured humor and life-affirming pathos of the interwoven monologues will always prove an irresistible challenge to any aspiring actress or director.

Ida Nerina deserves a huge round of applause, not only for doing a commendable job of directing – but especially for having had the foresight to preserve the original script for posterity, and the tenacity and vision to see it realized in its fullness as a workable production.

February 2002


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Antares experiences dejá vù at the preview of Jit Murad’s new play


Liza Othman (Zaidi Ahmad)

The last time I saw Liza Othman on stage was in 1988 when I played her husband in an original play by Maureen Ten. Jit Murad played our son. Then she got married (in real life) and vanished from public view until December 5th, 2001 – when Jit’s play VISITS was previewed under the Five Arts Centre/Actors Studio Directors’ Workshop Project with Ida Nerina making her directorial debut.

Liza Othman’s long sabbatical from the local stage was, I felt, a tremendous loss to  theater.  She is perhaps one of the most sensitive and versatile actresses I have had the pleasure of working with – apart, perhaps, from Fatimah Abu Bakar, who also gave up acting to devote herself to raising a family.  But in the interim we witnessed the arrival of many scintillating pros like Sukania Venugopal, Jo Kukathas, Joanna Bessey, Paula Malai Ali, Foo May Lyn, Sandra Sodhy, Shanthini Venugopal, Mary George, Nell Ng, Merissa Teh, Jerrica Lai, et al. Still, it was for me a poignant experience to watch Liza Othman in action again – even if she appeared just a wee bit jittery during the opening scene, which she carries more or less solo (the other actress, Melissa Saila, being all the while completely hidden under the bedclothes).

It didn’t take Liza long to win the audience over.


Sofia Jane

I became an ardent fan of Sofia Jane the moment I saw her on screen in some best forgotten Melayu movie (no, it wasn’t Uwei Hajisaari’s controversial Perempuan, Isteri, dan… which had some unforgettable moments). Indeed, in Sofia Jane I thought we had the makings of a Malaysian Sophia Loren… and then she, too, got married and vanished from public view for several years.  VISITS marks Sofia’s long-hoped-for return to theatre, now as Sofia Jane Azman and a mother of two. She’s as rivetingly beautiful as ever – and still one of the finest actresses this country has ever produced. It was truly a treat to watch two of my favorite actresses on stage together in an effervescent play written by someone I’ve always loved and respected.


Melissa Saila

Melissa Saila was making her debut in English-language theater, though she has starred in numerous Malay TV dramas and recently appeared in a much acclaimed Malay adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest.  Hers was a face new to me but she carried herself like a pro – and held her own against two absolutely charismatic and far more experienced actresses. There were a few moments when she lapsed into the excessive histrionics that’s long been a trademark of all Malay TV soaps – but then again the character she was playing probably grew up on a sudsy diet of melodrama. She, too, I’m happy to report, is gifted with star appeal – that special attribute Malays call berseri.


Ida Nerina: directorial debut

Working with such a winning cast and with such a charmingly written text, Ida Nerina – herself a talented and vivacious actress – would have had to try very hard to come up with a lousy play. Since this is her debut as a director, one applauds heartily if the whole thing actually hangs together; one doesn’t delve into minute technicalities; one simply celebrates Ida’s triumph and the arrival of exciting new directorial talent. Besides, director, cast, and playwright now have seven weeks to fine-tune and tailor the occasionally fluffy material into better defined shape.


Playwright Jit Murad

What of the play itself? Well, it’s very much a Jit Murad original. Natural-born storyteller Jit is a whiz at concocting Woody Allenish studies (“It’s my homage to Tennessee Williams,” the playwright insists) of a particular class and generation of Malays (in this instance three interesting specimens of Malay womanhood), gently poking fun at their foibles even as he redeems them with sheer lovability. Years of association with the Instant Café Theatre has made him expert at aiming pointed asides at the pompous, the hypocritical, and the politically unassailable while distracting us with rambling, yet thoroughly entertaining, monologues.

Gold Rain and Hailstones, which marked Jit’s debut as a playwright in the mid-90s, still ranks as a milestone event in local theater.  His next effort, The Storyteller, was overly long-winded but had its glorious moments and deserves to be revived in slightly edited form. It remains to be seen, when Visits opens for the public on January 30, 2002, if this one is going to mature into a major hit. Even as a work-in-progress it already has the makings of a minor masterpiece – thanks to the magic stirred into it by four beautiful and powerful women.

December 2001














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