THE OTHER ‑ a double bill presented by Five Arts Centre and directed by the venerable Krishen Jit ‑ lasted just slightly over an hour. But I’m sure nobody felt shortchanged by the brevity of the two monologues performed by the always impressive Huzir Sulaiman and the immensely gifted Joanna Bessey. The intensity of their performances more than made up for the textual obscurity of Huzir’s self‑penned tirade of a dead patriarch in THE SMELL OF LANGUAGE; and the unfulfilled promise of Joanna’s quirky dramatization of Tim Toyama’s “Karmatic Convergence” in WHO’S LOONEY, MAN?
Let’s take Huzir first: all through the routine I found myself wondering what could have inspired the man to embark on such a singularly highbrow exercise in arts festival fringe theatrics. Had he inadvertently ingested some fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) before sitting down to craft this high‑velocity, high‑vocabulary experiment in unmitigated verbosity? And was his runaway express train delivery calculated to prove beyond all doubt that Huzir is in possession of the fastest and best‑trained tongue in the Asia‑Pacific Rim? Or was he actually afraid of boring his audiences if he stretched his monologue by another ten minutes?
The text itself was dense and florid, chock‑a‑block as it was with sinister insinuations and suggestive references to topical events and political villains. The atmosphere he conjured ‑ merely by standing in one spot and moving his arms alternately like a marionette and mutant octopus while perspiring profusely in a double‑breasted suit ‑ was dark, macabre, and oppressive. It hinted at arcane metaphysical revelations quite beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. (Huzir’s sinfully priapic syntax is obviously contagious.) I confess I left The Actors Studio Box none the wiser about the ultimate meaning of life or death.
Of course defler was showing off again; but amidst such an endless ocean of mediocrity, Huzir Sulaiman continues to shine like a beacon even when he seems to be sneering at his audience. This time around he was impersonating Peter Ustinov as Yahweh ‑ in a script concocted by Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jorge Luis Borges.
Special mention must be made of the extremely effective lighting by Mac Chan and the quintessentially elegant set by Carolyn Lau. And the live “harpsichord” overture was a particularly classy touch.
WHO’S LOONEY, MAN? explores the genetic vagaries of hybridization ‑ the blessing and curse of being a “karmatic convergence” of Asian and European. The fine line between fit and misfit, clairvoyance and cloud cuckoo land, this world and the other.
Joanna Bessey, the youngest and most promising serious actress in the country, deserves the heartiest applause for the authenticity she invests in her performance. Another year or two on the boards will see her attaining full mastery of her craft, but for now, the delectable Ms Bessey does very nicely, thank you. True, more than once, it appeared that she was trying a little too hard. For the most part, however, she was pretty much up to scratch.
Bits of the text seemed patchy: there were puzzling divergences and details that made me lose the narrative thread. She starts out telling us about a girl child born to an English father and a Malay mother; then frenetically fleshes out the saga of a Chinese and Irish genetic convergence in Singapore. I was distracted by repeated references to a mental hospital in Woodlands (surely she meant Woodbridge?) There were poster‑sized drawings and charts scattered about the stage floor ‑ but these were hardly utilized to their full potential.
There were quite a few epiphanous moments. Joanna’s fresh‑faced beauty and her focused portrayal of a confusion born of transcontinental fusion made the time pass quickly. And yet so much more might have emerged, one feels, if the text had been a tad less “post‑colonial.” It was a fairly well‑constructed internal monologue, but perhaps that was its weakness, too. Oftimes it came across on a purely literary level and I felt I was in the British Council listening to earnest poetry read with unnecessary earnestness. I haven’t heard of Tim Toyama but I strongly suspect he’s an academic poet who’s been published in some tediously self‑conscious cross-cultural anthology of young writers. Many in the audience must have wished there was some hard copy to take home for careful scrutiny; why not?
THE OTHER was a celebration of words and the ideas they conceal or reveal. But as neither text was on sale in the foyer, I’ll probably never know… unless I run into Ms Bessey at the Eurasian Club (a most unlikely prospect, as I’ve never set foot there).
25 March 2000