“Many people confuse information and meaning, which leads to a rather disturbing paradox: Our society has come to place an enormous value on information even though information itself can tell us nothing about value.” – Erik Davis in Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (1998)
Yasmina Reza is an exotic and gifted actress, novelist, and playwright. Of Jewish-Hungarian parentage but domiciled in Paris, her cerebral tragicomedy of manners, Art, has won many coveted awards since it opened in 1994. At 42 Ms Reza is undoubtedly a big-time international success. She’s articulate, intelligent, poised and elegant – and stars like Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino clamor for rôles in her plays.
Art is decidedly a virtuoso play written for virtuoso performers. Little wonder that local virtuoso Huzir Sulaiman decided to bring the play to KL audiences through his Straits Theatre Company, despite stiff performance royalties for staging current mainstream boxoffice hits. It was a great opportunity to bring together the combined acting talents of three of Malaysia’s most outstanding young actors – Jit Murad, Zahim Albakri, and Huzir himself – under the sure (but by now predictable) hand of veteran director Krishen Jit whose task was certainly made easier by the fine quality of his cast.
As Serge, the dermatologist with upper-crust aspirations and enough ready cash to splurge on avant-garde art, Zahim Albakri was in superb form. His was an affable, believable Serge – someone you might actually have met last week at a Kenny Hills dinner party. Jit Murad as Marc, an acerbic, well-read aeronautical engineer with aesthetic dyspepsia, turned in an interesting performance – not that he wasn’t excellent, as usual, but there was a complex psychodynamic undercurrent between him and Zahim that at times exceeded their stage personas. Yvan, a genial, ne’er-do-well Everyman marrying into the stationery business, was played to great comedic effect by the masterful Huzir Sulaiman. The strength of Yasmina Reza’s play is, of course, the incredibly witty dialogue – brilliantly translated into English by that master playwright Christopher Hampton (who also translated Les Liaisons Dangereuses, recently staged in KL by The Actors Studio).
The Straits Theatre Company production of Art was unpretentious – with a functional, minimalist set by Paul Lau and quietly supportive lighting by Bernard Chauly Jr, enlivened by an aurally stimulating selection of musical inserts ear-picked by Huzir Sulaiman. A “white” painting by Richard “Antrios” Lau (with barely discernible diagonal and horizontal lines in ever-so-subtle “greys” and “yellows”) is central to the entire premise of the play. For what it’s worth, someone actually bought the canvas for an undisclosed amount after the play ended its run at the K.R. Soma Auditorium. Life imitates Art, I suppose.
The intricate psychodynamics of this 3-man tour de force of late 20th-century neo-existentialist drama has provoked a flood of literary and philosophical commentary (a fascinating analysis by the primitive-modernist painter Max Podstolski can be accessed here).
Like the “white” painting itself, Yasmina Reza’s inspired musings on the nature of friendships, the meaning and value of cultural artifacts, and the existential effeteness of our consumerist society bear many levels of interpretation. The crafty playwright effectively blurs the lines between the profound and the trivial, the serious and the absurd, the eternal and the ephemeral.
Was it the most stimulating or thought-provoking play I’d ever seen? Arguably not. But from the moment Art began I was sucked into an irresistible vortex of pure enjoyment that reminded me that the ultimate value of theater is its power to educate and provoke through sheer entertainment.
28 June 2001