Antares reviews Charley’s Auntie!
Was it really worth getting totally drenched, riding through a torrential downpour on the wettest day in recent memory, to catch a Sunday matinee performance of Charley’s Auntie! at the Actors Studio Box?
Probably not. But I can’t say I didn’t have as good a time as Mr Vincent Teoh, a retired school teacher sitting next to me, who told me this was the first theater production he’d seen in his life. What prompted him to see this utterly silly but endearing (and enduring) farce? Apparently his good friend Dr Ho (from Muar) insisted that he come along. Judging from the satisfaction on his face, Mr Teoh obviously thought it was a jolly good show and would make it a point to go watch more plays in future.
This is enough to warm the heart of anyone who loves the theater and would like to see it flourish in Malaysia. There’s a vast potential market for upbeat, escapist stage productions beyond the British Airways dinner theater scene – especially for general audiences who would balk at the thought of forking out RM90++ for a few forgettable laughs to go with some fancy cuisine. And what if the material can be adapted and packaged for TV…?
The last time I was at the Box, it was to witness William Gluth’s virtuoso interpretation of I, Cyclops – which, as theater fare goes, is about as esoteric and highbrow as it gets in Kuala Lumpur. It was nice to see a full house this time and happy faces on the way out.
Sometimes, it’s a blessed relief to experience a blast of unpretentious mainstream theater. I saw The Sound of Music last year and was thoroughly delighted. I’m really not into dark and brooding, angst-driven dramas. I appreciate well produced, well performed fluff like anyone else who occasionally turns on the telly and soaks up a couple of laugh-a-minute sitcoms.
And the great-grandmother of sitcoms has to be Charley’s Aunt – Brandon Thomas’s Edwardian masterpiece of orchestrated chaos and over-the-top foolishness – which has been running since the 1890s and has seen countless productions, amateur and professional, throughout the world.
Richard Harding Gardner wrote and directed this effervescent adaptation for a Malaysian audience, aided and abetted by producer (and accomplished actress) Chae Lian. Gardner is quick to point out that members of the cast contributed significantly to the very local flavor of the lively repartee. Indeed, there’s no way Gardner could have stopped the likes of Na’a Murad or Indi Nadarajah from embellishing his script with their own irrepressible wit. Both have performed in and contributed material to the infamous Instant Café Theatre skits. Nadarajah, in fact, is co-founder of The Comedy Court with the remarkable Allan Perera, and their hysterically funny “Loga and Singam” routine has been an indisputable runaway success.
As Fadzil the wolf in aunt’s clothing, Na’a Murad’s expressive exuberance banishes forever the popular misconception that he isn’t every bit as cute, clever and talented as his celebrated brother Jit. And as Taufeeq the sleazy lawyer, Indi Nadarajah fully deserves a Slimy Award. Taufeeq’s profit-motivated and ardent pursuit of Charley’s “aunt” provides an excuse for a profusion of giggles and guffaws and ribald innuendo. In the best bangsawan folk theater tradition, the broad humor in Charley’s Auntie! runs the gamut from exquisite sarcasm to ludicrous farce.
Rope in two energetic, fresh-faced young Romeos named Rashid Salleh and Khaeryll Benjamin as Charley and Johari; add a couple of seasoned stage veterans like the redoubtable Azean Irdawaty and the supersuave Othman Hafsham (as the Baroness and Major Ghazali); toss in the luminously beautiful and delightfully capable Joanna Bessey (last seen on TV as the new millennium Lux girl); garnish with a couple of “marriageable” debutantes like Natasya Yusoff and Fash Stephenson (as Kitty and Amy); top it all off with some genuine goonishness, courtesy of David Lim as the chronically befuddled Ah Boon… and voila! you have the makings of a potential money-spinner.
Never mind political correctness as long as the ethnic mix is right. So what if all the men are conniving twits and the women twittering coquettes and the token Chinaman is acutely acumen-deficient? In khalwat-conscious Malaysia, the basic premise of the plot – that Charley needed his aunt’s visit as an excuse to invite Amy and Kitty over for tea – isn’t too far-fetched, especially if you set the action in an upper class boarding school in the early 1960s.
Writer-director Gardner, as it happens, is also a filmmaker and creative consultant with an audio, video and multimedia production house. So it makes perfect sense that Charley’s Auntie! be videotaped and edited for local and regional television. Sounds like an idea that ought to have taken off ages ago. Indeed, it should have happened way back in 1987 when Thor Kah Hoong came up with his eminently televisable Caught In The Middle series. As for the Instant Café Theatre, everyone knows why they still haven’t been taped and televised – they’re just not inoffensive enough!
What the televised version of Charley’s Auntie! will look like is anyone’s guess. Should this independently funded experiment succeed in gaining a TV audience of millions, it might pave the way for a self-financing resurgence of the performing arts in Malaysia. Theater practitioners will be lured into signing lucrative contracts, to hell with High Art. Acting, set design, stage lighting, and directing will become viable occupations. Professional theater will, at last, be part of mainstream Malaysian culture.
Will this inspire nothing but a slew of recycled stage hits targeted at a much broader “consumer base”? Such a trend is not without its dangers. Once you start playing to “market forces” and the lowest common denominator, you tend to get a bit too glib and end up with nothing worth saying. Oh well, another face of “globalization,” I suppose.
31 May 2002