Antares is touched by postmodernist fever at A Funeral for the Stranger
Fay Theatre is a new generation of Malaysian-born Chinese, educated in Taiwan, and exposed to European cultural influences. Which may explain the new generation names sported by Eva Heng (producer/director), Yves Yap (actor/co-producer), and Zoe Au (executive producer). For its maiden venture in KL, Fay Theatre opted for a postmodernist collage of images and perceptions on the theme of romantic love, complete with a “soundtrack” consisting of popular Mandarin love songs.
Director Eva Heng evokes the obsession with eros (love) and thanatos (death) that underpins almost all of Woody Allen’s movies and plays (the only theme neo-existentialists have in common with romanticists and classicists). A veiled bride in traditional scarlet sits alone in a cemetery festooned with rose petals. Couples in white deliver lengthy monologues on their personal encounters with that elusive thing called love, and perform slow-motion adagios to the schmaltzy strains of popular karaoke numbers. Wintry scenes, back-projected onto a screen, thaw out into images of spring and new growth. The symbolism jumps out at you from the hallowed pages of literary critiques and dramaturgical textbooks.
The average age of the cast was 25 and they all seem to have emerged from a proudly Chinese middle-class background. Apart from Yves Yap, the others had names like Chin Lee Yin, Foo Ai Peng, Gan Hui Yee, Khang Tsung Hui, Khee Mei Chyn, and Teo Wee Ping. I found myself wondering if any of their parents or their aunts and uncles had come to watch them perform – or if they were too busy minding the store.
These are mutant fourth generation Malaysian Chinese who, having acquired a burning passion for the arts, are determined to spread their aesthetic awareness to the Chinese-speaking community – although they also seem keen on reaching out to Anglophonic theatergoers via subtitles in passable English projected onto a side screen.
The stagecraft was reminiscent of low-budget school productions, but Fay Theatre’s intentions seem noble enough, even if naïve by cosmopolitan standards. It’s such a different theatrical world from the one to which I am accustomed, and I felt simultaneously alienated and intrigued by the proceedings. The performances and production lacked polish for the most part, but I was touched by the earnesty and sincerity of the directors’ vision – despite its derivative tendencies and annoying lapses into artistic overindulgence. Just when we thought Five Arts Centre had killed postmodernism with flatfooted humorlessness, Fay Theatre demonstrates that postmodernism isn’t quite dead – it has merely migrated to Taiwan, where it has taken on a karaoke mystique.
I was reminded of my brief stint as a lecturer in a private college with a large population of middle-class Chinese-educated students. They were conscientious and very ambitious, struggling to transcend their parents’ lack of culture (owing to their intense preoccupation with cari makan issues, an understandable trait amongst migrant communities). The last assignment I gave them was to deliver a two-minute impromptu talk on the subject of love. One student chose to stand for a full two minutes, idly tapping his fingers on the makeshift lectern and searching for something meaningful to say about love. In the end he quipped: “I can’t think of anything to say about love, as I have yet to experience it.” However, many opted to speak candidly about their own painful encounters with love – or the lack of it. Soon we had to place a box of tissues within easy reach of the speakers. The rest of the class invariably ended up sniffling and shedding sympathetic tears. It was just like encounter therapy. In any case, the exercise served to bond the classmates on a deeper level. There was one girl in particular who never said a word in class. She remained aloof and friendless throughout the greater part of the semester. When her turn came to speak about love, her story was so touching it moved everyone to tears. Come to think of it, those kids in my creativity course did a much better job than the cast of A Funeral For The Stranger. Possibly because they weren’t trying to be arty, they were only speaking their truth.
After the curtain call (the applause was polite but lukewarm), the audience (100% Chinese, by the way) was treated to a 20-minute art feature by Zoe Au, entitled In Search of a Drifting Age. A sensitive and promising effort, inspired by French surrealism and German expressionism, but a student film through and through. I left the theater determined to say a few encouraging words about the experience. I anticipate good days ahead for Chinese-language theater in Malaysia. But, please, go easy on the Mandarin love songs.
8 July 2002