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Nemmain The Style, Got Substance Or Not?

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“Mom’s Loving Hands” by Justin Jay

Antares is bemused and bewildered by MOTHER’S LOVE, Mark Beau de Silva’s second play  

It was inevitable that Mark Beau de Silva and I should meet. After I walked out on his debut production, The Dream’s Nightmare, I decided to review it anyway (needed the cash) and was surprised when the aspiring 23-year-old playwright and director thanked me for the feedback, negative though it be. We even exchanged a few friendly emails. If nothing else, this young man knows how to roll with the punches. He’ll definitely live long enough to improve with age.

And so, when a few months later Mark Beau de Silva emailed me a personal invitation to his second play, Mother’s Love, I felt compelled to check on his progress. The experience was intriguing, to say the least: I was one of four in the audience, two of whom turned out to be friends of the lead actress, Brenda Ng. When the play ended, a shy de Silva emerged from the wings and thanked me for coming. We sat around for another 15 minutes, chatting with the entire cast, and the playwright clarified a few nebulous details in the plot. I asked for a program and was told there was none. Couldn’t afford to print one on a RM3,000 budget (most of which came out of de Silva’s earnings as an advertising hack, with everyone else chipping in). The playwright proceeded to scribble the names of the cast on a scrap of paper – in case I needed them for the review.

ImageThat was more than a fortnight ago and I’m only just getting down to writing about Mother’s Love (yalah, need the cash). Problem is, one doesn’t quite know what to say about a theater production as earnest and bizarre as de Silva’s second excursion into the no-man’s-land between the phantasmal and physical realms. To dismiss it offhand as gauche and uninformed would be unnecessarily harsh judgement on one so young – and so patently keen on making his mark on the theater scene. And yet, to let the event pass unremarked might be even more of a disappointment to the enthusiastic youngsters who constitute Mark Beau’s company, De Silva and The Theatre People.

The plot of Mother’s Love might have been lifted straight off a vintage episode of Twilight Zone – or one of those 1960s Marvel comics with titles like “Tales of the Unknown.”  A nerdish introvert named Seng, convincingly portrayed by Edmund Lau, turns psychotic and murders three people, including his shrill and nagging mother (vivaciously and corpulently brought to life by Brenda Ng). His antisocial behavior puts him in a time warp (depicted by blank calendar sheets on the kitchen wall), and the boundaries between third and fourth dimensions become blurred. So blurred, in fact, that the audience (all four of us) lost all sense of sequence and ended up wondering about the point of it all.  Attribute that to technical problems with the dramaturgy. Maybe Mark Beau de Silva isn’t quite ready to direct his own scripts.

ImageThe text, raw and unrefined, seemed more concerned with realism than literary value. Similarly, the “photorealist” set was slapped together from everyday household items, down to yesterday’s washing drying on the clothesline.

I learned that the computer and monitor, plugged in and operational, belonged to the playwright himself.  The kitchen furnishings and props could have been taken from any low-rent, high-rise flat occupied by a working-class Chinese family. Talk about taking “realism” a tad too literally. And yet, the sheer inartistry of the set did serve to accentuate the depressing prosaicness of Seng’s personal hell.

Fortunately there were many intense moments in de Silva’s contemporary gothic tale of quiet desperation: the humdrum routine of Seng’s existence was effectively dramatized as he orbited robotically between home and office computer, alternately banging away on his computer keyboard, and dangling listlessly from a handstrap on his commuter train. The mother’s vicious attacks on her “useless” son’s self-esteem were chillingly penetrating, all the more so whenever she broke out in crude vernacular, in this case, Hokkien. As a study in plebeian nihilism and the psychopathology of a loner, Mother’s Love was rich in carefully observed detail. However, we’ve seen too many variations on this dismal theme to get overly excited by yet another case of Oedipal hypermania.

Sean Augustine, Jessica Ong, and Cindy Cheah made up the supporting cast. Despite their obvious inexperience on stage, they performed passably.  Augustine and Ong played Seng’s officemates and victims, Jim and Nina. You guessed it: Seng had long been Nina’s silent admirer and his jealousy got the better of him when he found out they were having an affair.

At the end of the play, one is left feeling somewhat bemused and bewildered, wondering if the glaring lack of style was a deliberate device to focus attention on the substance. But… what substance? Seems to me that writing plays must be a form of deep therapy for Mark Beau de Silva: a constructive way for him to exorcise the ghosts of what must have been a confusing and disturbing childhood.

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“The Black Marker Brigade” by Antares

And now he has a third play on the boards – Stories for Amah, about a “lain-lain” girl (“lain-lain” is the bureaucratic racial classification for Malaysians of Eurasian origin) – directed by the illustrious Joe Hasham, and produced by the indomitable Faridah Merican – with an interesting cast of seasoned and new actors. Looks like Mark Beau de Silva’s indefatigable, never-say-die spirit is going to be haunting Malaysian theater for quite a while yet.

22 November 2002

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About Antares

Author, illustrator, actor, musician, composer, arts reviewer, blogger, Abominable Jungleman. Also a stargate activator, ceremonial guardian, interdimensional gatekeeper, pendragon-in-exile, and retired deity.

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