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Category Archives: Malaysian Theatre

Dreaming the Body Beautiful at the Royal Durian Academy of Ballet

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Performance pics courtesy of Wong Horng Yih

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Goddess-trainer Nell Ng

As a hardcore and unrepentant goddess-lover, I am bound to be biased about any project involving Nell Ng. In any case I’ve never subscribed to the belief that objectivity serves better than subjectivity, especially when it comes to expressing an opinion or viewpoint. After all, how we experience an event is largely determined by the general state of mind we happen to be in – even what we had for breakfast.

Well, on the 5th of October, 2016, my digestion could only handle a breakfast of cream crackers soaked in condensed “milk” – no thanks to the “fresh” pineapple juice I had consumed a couple of days earlier at the local Mamak. My late lunch of refried spaghetti didn’t help either. I had to use the loo at least twice before leaving home, to expel the ominous rumblings in my gut. I was sorely tempted to message Nell and apologize for canceling out on The Royal Durian Academy of Ballet’s stepping-out performance. But it was on for only one night, and I really did want to be present at this momentous event, so I braved the perils of a fragile belly to witness the birth of “adult ballet” in Malaysia.

durian5Why momentous? Well, for one thing it was to showcase the results of a whole year of sweat and tears (perhaps even a few drops of blood) endured by Nell Ng’s guinea-pig class of adult ballet students – which began with an enrolment of 20 and ended up with only 11 who managed to stay the grueling course. Among them were some of the most scintillating divas and goddesses in local showbiz… like Carmen Soo, Nikki Palikat, Ida Mariana, Janet Lee, Elvira Raul, Bihzhu… and here I’ll include Alia Kearney (because she’s getting there in quite a hurry).

A few of them probably attended ballet classes as youngsters, but they had all gone on to become actresses, models, singers, mothers, entrepreneurs, accountants, lawyers, housewives. As Principal of the Royal Durian Academy, Nell Ng was formally trained in classical ballet early in her life but has since carved a prominent niche for herself as actress, director, choreographer, scriptwriter, radio host, emcee, producer, and co-founder and artistic director of Pan Productions.

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Why Royal Durian? Well, Nell is passionate about this thorny, pungent “king of fruits” – and I suppose the durian aptly symbolizes what this project is about. The outer skin is tough and prickly, like beginner’s ballet classes; but once the breakthrough is achieved, the rewards are orgasmically sweet. In between performance pieces, each dancer was given the stage to share a bit of personal experience – and everyone testified that surviving a whole year of beginner’s ballet under Nell Ng in dominatrix mode had totally changed their lives – for the better.

For a start, getting to Monday morning classes on time week after week had made them all far more disciplined. Nell Ng, reportedly, has an extremely low tolerance for any student who says, “Sorry, I’m late!” This inspired a frenetic and fast-moving number titled “I’m Late” (set to a staccato con prestissimo jazz piano piece by Eliane Elias) which yielded some extremely funny moments.

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As to be expected, there was a generous dose of kinetic humor added to the choreography. Nell Ng has the uncanny knack of infusing even the most serious moments with inspired wit – and this quality was most evident in Aaron Teoh’s engaging performance, wherein he utilized his diminutive form to hilarious comedic effect. Aaron brought the house down with his description of some of Nell’s extreme training methods. The students would be made to lie flat on their backs with their legs raised perpendicular to their torsos while Nell would go around leaning hard against their feet, reminding everyone to point their toes: “Point point point,” she would yell, “till you can feel my tits!” That marked the moment Aaron Teoh understood the real meaning of “adult” ballet!

Interior designer and budding actor Adrien Ritzal joined the Royal Durian Academy only a few months ago as a “junior member.” His natural charm and aptitude for dance swiftly won the crowd over as he confessed to a growing fondness for prancing around in sexy tights.

Cassie Frankenstein Wong (that’s her facebook name) quit the corporate matrix to pursue her passions and has blossomed into a superb artist, experimenting with painting and pottery, photography, and now, ballet. She helped with costume design on this production and also managed to sell 10 miniature watercolors of ballerinas to members of the audience supportive of her bold leap into authentic creativity and resourcefulness. Her poise as a dancer was clear evidence that the spirit, once freed of drudgery and mechanical routine, is capable of achieving just about anything.

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The hall lights came on as ushers dressed as durians on legs, assisted by members of the troupe, went up and down the aisles, collecting cash donations to help Bella Rahim continue her performing arts studies in France. Her colleagues in theater are determined to fill the enormous vacuum in funding for deserving artists painfully evident in corruption-rife and politically-retarded Malaysia.

Bella Rahim and seasoned torch singer Elvira Arul (also known as Elfie Raul) offered poignant testimony of their personal struggles with body image and self-esteem growing up XL in a culture that idealizes sizes S and M. Joining the Royal Durian Academy of Ballet was an act of courage and defiance that helped them reclaim their pride in being themselves, fashion magazine norms be damned. Glad to say, both performed every bit as beautifully and gracefully as the rest.

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Ida Mariana

Reclaiming self-confidence, self-esteem, and realizing the body beautiful are integral to Nell’s adult ballet curriculum. Actress and singer Ida Mariana confessed that, despite her powerful passion for dance, she opted to concentrate on singing instead because she believed, for most of her life, that she didn’t have the “perfect” dancer’s body. Attending the Royal Durian Academy had effectively dispelled her anxieties, allowing her to wholeheartedly embrace the beauty and truth of her cosmic-dancer soul. Towards the end of the show, certificates were presented to each dancer, including the results of a mock exam they had taken days earlier. Ida Mariana was one of two who earned full marks; the other being Cassie Wong.

Another inspiring case study in fearlessly pursuing one’s passion was Janet Lee, fast becoming a well-known diva in town and now working on her second album of jazz-flavored songs. When I first met Janet many years ago, she was working in computer sales. I recall that every time I rode in her car she would put on an opera cassette and uninhibitedly burst into song. I told her she had it in her to go pro and, true enough, she actually did, after many years of dedicated effort and perseverance. It was uplifting to see Janet apply the same determination and focus to her desire to conquer the domain of dance. Her energy and vivacity are indeed infectious. Perhaps a positive spin-off of having worked and played for years alongside a natural-born goddess-trainer like Nell Ng.

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Indeed, there was no member of the Royal Durian Academy troupe who wasn’t radiant with confidence, exuberance, joy, and laughter. Nell’s ability to instill discipline and bring out the best in her performers echoes the work of classical Indian dance master Ramli Ibrahim (who has nurtured several generations of outstanding dancers). As a consummate director with an eye for detail and a nose for perfection, Nell Ng strikes me as Malaysia’s answer to mad genius Tim Burton, in her penchant for creative quirkiness and a preference for working with a trusted and reliable ensemble of performers.

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Nikki Palikat

The celestially talented Nikki Palikat and Ida Mariana – along with Peter Ong and Alizakri Alias, Nell’s partners in Pan Productions – are among her regular stars whenever she stages one of her typically ambitious but always artistically and commercially successful musicals. I have witnessed over the years how everyone in Goddess Nell’s orbit seems to shine brighter and more joyfully, as they claim their place in the firmament of showbiz luminaries. I suspect Nell Ng is really an alchemist who has mastered the art of transmuting lead to gold, lumps of charcoal into sparkling diamonds.

At the maiden performance of the Royal Durian Academy of Ballet, the entire theater seemed aglitter with stars – on stage as well as in the audience. Even the durian-impersonating ushers and a handsome half-naked young hunk who came on stage to help with the lucky draws looked like celebrities – and as it turned out, the handsome lad was none other than Joseph Lee (actor, model, martial artist, athlete, and 21st century version of the legendary Bruce).

I don’t listen to radio or watch TV, so I didn’t recognize the dazzlingly elegant emcee, who turned out to be Ashley Chan, a popular young personality on the airwaves (whose career as a dancer was cut short by a meniscus injury sustained during intense rehearsals). She was totally impressive, stunning in fact, just like the rest of the show. Which is why I unhesitatingly rose to my feet and applauded as the performers took a bow – and I was elated to see the full house follow suit.

7 October 2016

[First published in Eksentrika, 7 October 2016]

 

 

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TRIBAL TOTEMS & TABOOS – AND HOW TO BREAK FREE OF THEM!

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Antares catches Kee Thuan Chye’s epic Swordfish + Concubine

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Writer/producer/director  Kee Thuan Chye

As long as I’ve known journalist turned actor-playwright-author-director Kee Thuan Chye – and our friendship dates back more than three decades (including almost a decade when he “unfriended” me for bashing his 1992 staging of that infamous Scottish play) – he has struck me as a clear-headed, straight-talking sharpshooter who enjoys taking aim at all that’s mediocre, unjust and tyrannical. Whether through the written, spoken or dramatized word, Kee rarely beats about the bush. This makes his voice as a public intellectual good medicine for the national soul, even if subtlety is often sacrificed for accessibility.

This was once again evident in his latest theatrical production, Swordfish + Concubine, which marks Kee’s dramatic comeback after a long hiatus. Swordfish is an energetic, eclectic and electric take on an instructive tale recorded in Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals), wherein a precocious and perspicacious lad is deemed a potential threat to the mediocre powers-that-be and summarily executed. When I first came upon this fascinating folktale a long time ago, I saw it as a perfect metaphor for the intellectual and moral stagnation characteristic of feudal despotisms wherein tribal totems and taboos conveniently serve to dumb down the populace and keep them docile, servile, and blindly loyal to debauched and decadent overlords.

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Kee in his producer’s notes states that he has been shaping and reshaping this punchy parable for a good twenty years. Its first theatrical expression was in 2008 when Ivan Heng of  Wild Rice  staged it at the OCBC Singapore Theater Festival; three years later a revised version directed by Jonathan Lim was staged at Singapore’s Drama Center Black Box; and less than a year ago Swordfish was staged in Mandarin by Loh Kok Man at Pentas 2, KLPAC. So much effort has been channeled into molding this work because it’s a play that lends itself Lego-like to a variety of dramaturgic interpretations.

A bit of Brecht, a dash of Shakespeare, a whiff of Ionesco, throw in some Bangsawan and Wayang Kulit elements, insert some hip-hop  – and the result is an engaging mix of pungent satire, socio-political commentary, polemical theater and tragicomedy with a distinctly Malaysian flavor (even if the setting happens to be Singapura, an island off the Malayan peninsula once known as Temasek).

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With a dynamic, cohesive, ensemble cast of 12, a strong blend of experience and youth, and no prima donna roles, the action is a liquid, continuous flow – with dead bodies resurrecting themselves to reappear moments later in a different scene and costume changes occurring as if by magic. It wasn’t easy to keep track of the parade of personalities, as each performer played two or more characters. They had to act, sing, dance, fight and move props around as each scene merged into the next. But it was undoubtedly an enthusiastic, disciplined, focused and poignant ensemble performance – veering from commedia dell’arte style hijinks provided by Ris Kaw and Logod (the clownish “Greek” chorus, adroitly played by Iefiz Alaudin and Bella Rahim) to dark, dire and distressing theater noir (the public impalement of the Sultan’s concubine Nurhalisa, gut-wrenchingly portrayed by Hana Nadira).

As Hang Nadim, the young genius who suggested building a palisade of banana stems against the swarms of killer swordfish, Joel Timothy Low won the audience over from the outset, so that his cruel and unjust murder elicited vicarious outrage. Veteran actors Sandra Sodhy, Na’a Murad and Lam Ghooi Ket lent professional gravitas to each character they played, while the younger ones (Alfred Loh, Arief Hamizan, Amanda Ang, Qahar Adilah and Gregory Sze) gave vigor and vitality to the proceedings. As Sultan Iskandar Syah, Gregory Sze was marvelously narcissistic, vulnerable and schizoid, sentencing the woman he loved to death by impalement just so he wouldn’t be seen as a weak ruler. Alfred Loh’s portrayal of the inquisitorial trial judge was blood-curdlingly convincing; and Amanda Ang’s Tun Dara, Sultan Iskandar’s love-deprived official consort, was sensitive and poignant.

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Rhythm In Bronze (Jillian Ooi in the middle) Pic courtesy of Bella Rahim

A crucial dramatic element was the mesmerizing live “soundtrack” provided by the celebrated contemporary gamelan ensemble Rhythm In Bronze, under the masterful musical direction of Jillian Ooi and Teuku Umar Ilany (featuring guest percussionist Thong Yoong How). Indeed, almost everyone will agree that just listening to Rhythm In Bronze in action alone was worth the price of admission, they are that captivating. Choreographer Faillul Adam, costume designer Dominique Devorsine, and lighting/set designer Loh Kok Man deserve mention and a hearty round of applause for their excellent work on Swordfish + Concubine.

The political dimensions of Kee’s play are, of course, worthy of an academic treatise and everyone in the audience was electrified by the cogency and relevancy of his numerous allusions to the rotten state of affairs (at least in old Singapura, where the action takes place). All-too-familiar to us were the complacent, self-serving, sycophantic palace officials and ministers and their cunning machinations just to maintain their privileged positions and the corrupt status quo. The deification of royalty and the sanctification of “The Covenant” – a mythical Social Contract handed down from generations long gone – serve as tools of mass mind control, leading to cultural stagnation, abuse of the law, political paralysis, allowing criminals in public office unchallengeable impunity.

Setting up a “sovereign fund” and milking it for all its worth to support lavish lifestyles… the usual shenanigans that go unreported and unremarked in the muzzled media… arresting citizens for gathering without a permit in public places, charging them with sedition in the spurious name of stability and security… a secret police network payrolled by authoritarian paranoia… the very ingredients of a failed state once known as Temasek, now fallen into the hands of invaders.

But Swordfish + Concubine closes on an upbeat, optimistic note (“It’s time to rock, yo! And move to your own beat”) as the citizens begin to awake and embrace the possibility of – nay, the necessity for – radical, liberating change, a complete break from stultifying, toxic tradition.

4 November 2017

[First published in Eksentrika 4 November 2017. Production images courtesy of Pam Lim]

 

 

 

 

 

 

“MUM… DAD… I WANNA JOIN THE MACC!”

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This ticket stub carries some pleasurable memories for me. That’s why I have immortalized it here. I first stumbled on the intriguing poster below on Patrick Teoh’s Niamah blog…

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What phenomenal inspiration, I thought, to present three stand-up comedians – all Chinese, of course – as the Malaysian Association of Chinese Comedians. I was determined to catch the show, even visited TicketCharge to try and book online… but was put off by the fact that TicketCharge charges an additional RM12 as a “service fee.” That’s way too much, I thought. I mean, if I were booking a RM375 ticket to see Beyonce, I wouldn’t blink an eye at a RM12 service fee. Nobody minds paying up to RM5 extra for the convenience of booking a theater ticket online – but RM12? That’s 33% of the ticket price! What if I were buying TWO tickets? RM24 could easily buy a very fine dinner for two…

Jaya-OneFast-forward to 24 October 2007. I get to Jaya One around 8:20PM and, after asking a couple of people, manage to locate PJ Live Arts. As I stand in line at the ticket office, I notice a poster for MACC 1st EGM that has “Sold Out” scrawled over it in black marker. True enough, it was a full house – not even one seat left! But a girl named Lulu was really helpful. She told me to hang around till just before 9PM – in case somebody canceled out. Just then I bumped into Patrick Teoh and his lovely wife Min Chan with heartthrob actor/director/playwright Gavin Yap in tow. They were downing some beers and awaiting the arrival of more friends. We had a quick chat and then I headed back to the ticket office where more friends were assembled – including a few prominent bloggers I had never met in person. They were waiting around for cancellations too. But as it turned out there was only ONE cancellation… and since I was alone I got it! I wasn’t going to miss MACC 1st EGM after all 🙂

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Douglas Lim (pic courtesy of Grant Corban)

The President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Secretary and Supreme Advisor of the Malaysian Association of Chinese Comedians is a mutant Malaysian Chinese multi-tasker named Douglas Lim. I first heard of him when my daughter was assistant director on a successful sitcom called Kopitiam. She told me supporting actor Douglas Lim was incredibly talented but I must admit I was more keen to be introduced to Joanna Bessey, the star of the series. Back then at only 18, Douglas Lim looked rather nerdy – but it was undeniable that he was a natural-born actor, singer and comedian with tremendous promise.

Well, that promise has been totally fulfilled. Douglas Lim at 32 is a world-class act. I never would have believed a Chinaman could do stand-up comedy the way Douglas does it. Back in the mid-1980s my friend Thor Kah Hoong gave it a shot and he did pretty okay – but I still preferred Chris Rush, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, even Robin Williams. Thor was simply too cerebral, too cynical, too dry (and too skinny) and for my taste.

douglas-limAlong came the irresistible Jit Murad and the inimitable Harith Iskandar, followed by the untoppable Alan Pereira and Indi Nadarajah (of Comedy Court fame). Amazing talents – but not Chinese mah, that’s why so funny. Before long, Patrick Teoh and Nell Ng joined the luminous cast of The Instant Cafe Theatre and both proved to be extreme hoots on stage and always entertaining – but while Patrick and Nell are fantastic comedians, they don’t actually do stand-up stuff. Riveting pub entertainer Rafique Rashid acquired a loyal following as a singing stand-up comedian whose specialty was “Weird Al” Yankovic-style spoof songs – but his only claim to Chineseness was his predilection for Chinese girls with nice legs. And then, of course, there’s the supercool Afdlin Shauki – but also not Chinese, so not counted.

Well, I tell you, this fella Douglas Lim can hold his own on the same stage with all the great names in stand-up comedy – including, possibly, the late great George Carlin. You know why? Because if you can do stand-up comedy with a typical Chinaman accent and not make everybody cringe… you’ve got to be absolutely fantastic!

Stand-up comedy is perhaps the most challenging form of performance. Apart from your voice, your brain, and your own body – all you’ve got is a microphone. No fake mustache, no funny hat. The ones who make it in this incredibly challenging medium must also be equipped with brains that can process data at a million times average speed. In short, unless you qualify as a Grade A mutant genius, don’t even bother auditioning as a stand-up comedian. I wish I could upload a few more clips of Douglas doing his thang. But they don’t exist on YouTube yet [Now they do! ~ Ed.] The kind of rapid-fire multi-layered humor he trades in can’t really be transcribed as text because one has to see his face and watch his moves. Suffice to say, Douglas Lim found a new fan in me that night.

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Kuah Jenhan

The MACC 1st EGM poster featured two other board members of the Malaysian Association of Chinese Comedians: Phoon Chi Ho (listed as an “intern”) and Kuah Jenhan (“sacked – pending appeal”). Phoon had to cancel out at the last minute because he was down with chicken pox. That put the onus on 22-year-old Jenhan (left) to work doubly hard since it was now a two-man rather than a three-man show. I’m happy to report that Jenhan’s performance was truly outstanding, no doubt because he picked the best sifu (guru) in the business – Douglas Lim, whose masterful tutelage Jenhan acknowledged more than once during his routine.

What impressed me most was the sheer sophistication of the material presented at MACC 1st EGM. Douglas and Jenhan effortlessly negotiated the squiggly boundary between heavyweight cutting-edge political satire and lighthearted pop trivia and kept the audience rolling in the aisles without a moment’s letup. The audience, about 75% Chinese I’d venture, left the theater feeling it’s actually quite okay to be born yellow instead of black or white. That’s really no mean feat – to make being Chinese look funky, funny, sexy and lovable all at once. Douglas and Jenham fully earned the standing ovation they received that memorable Saturday night.

Watch Douglas Lim in action, expressing the frustration some of us must feel because we happen to be born yellow instead of black…

 

5 November 2009

SO… HOW DID THE CAST RATE?

Antares reviews The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral

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Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002)

I have the greatest admiration for Kuo Pao Kun’s consummate skill and integrity as a playwright. In 1986 Five Arts Centre was refused a police permit for Kuo’s monodrama, The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole, and had to stage it privately for a small audience -which only accentuated the power of his pungently satirical look at bureaucratic inanity and the ethos of conformity.

With The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral – what an evocative title! – the eminent Singaporean playwright once again displays a scintillating ability to seize upon a crystalline metaphor and hold it up to the light of intelligent scrutiny so that it reflects on a myriad of complex issues – historical, philosophical, political, psychological, and ontological.  The themes Kuo touches upon in this text-driven drama are at once topical and timeless, culture-specific and universal.  The saga of the great eunuch admiral of the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) is undoubtedly a fascinating one, and I am grateful that Five Arts Centre has brought it to my attention by staging it. I’m not entirely pleased about the way it was presented, but that is secondary. More about that later.

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Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433)

Zheng He’s name at birth was Ma Sanpao. He belonged to a Central Asian tribe known as the Semur which converted to Islam before migrating to Yunnan Province.  When the Chinese army invaded Yunnan in 1382, the 11-year-old Ma Sanpao was taken captive, and given as a slave to Prince Zhu Di who would later seize the Ming throne as the Emperor Yong Le. The megalomaniacal Yong Le was determined to extend the glory of the Ming to the far ends of the earth.  Having rebuilt the Great Wall so that China’s rear end was covered, so to speak, he conferred on his brave and trusted eunuch warrior, Ma Sanpo, the new name of “Zheng He” and offered him the title, “Admiral of the Western Seas.”

Between 1405 and 1433 Zheng He embarked on seven voyages that established Chinese naval and diplomatic supremacy in 36 countries and took him as far as the African continent.  Zheng He’s fleet was truly massive. One biographer writes: “No other nation on earth had ever sent such a fleet onto the ocean. It included sixty-two large ships, some 600 feet long, larger than any other on the seas. Hundreds of smaller vessels accompanied them.” On certain voyages Zheng He’s Grand Fleet carried as many as 28,000 crew and the decks were lined with huge tubs of earth for planting vegetables and fruit trees.  According to some accounts Zheng He died at sea, and we shall never know if he was buried with his “missing parts” as was customary for imperial eunuchs.  The Chinese believed that the deceased could otherwise never reincarnate as a man.

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Indisputably the dominant global maritime power of the early 15th century

The next Ming Emperor was an isolationist and his scholar-ministers ordered that Zheng He’s maritime logs be destroyed.  Around this time the Portuguese seafarers began their exploratory voyages, soon to be followed by the Dutch, the Spanish, and the English.  If China had but maintained her mastery of the oceans, we would now be living under the emblem of the Dragon instead of the Eagle, the Tiger, or the Hyena.

Kuo does not dwell on the geopolitical theme in Eunuch Admiral. Instead he muses on the private thoughts and feelings of this great adventurer whose monumental exploits were largely forgotten until the 1930s – when a stone pillar inscribed with a detailed record of Zheng He’s seven voyages was found near a temple dedicated to the Celestial Spouse (a Taoist goddess) in Fujian Province.

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Jeff Chen’s restaging of Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral  in 2015

Alone on deck upon a quiet evening at sea, did Zheng He dream of a world beyond power-seeking and oppressive hierarchies, a world where every man is a king in his own kingdom, free to pursue a life of ease and nobility?  A world where espionage, palace intrigue, and torture chambers are unheard of?  Kuo speculates on Zheng He’s possible rôle in the establishment of an Imperial lntelligence Agency during the eight-year hiatus in his seafaring.  Even though he had no testicles, Zheng He must have been an awesomely charismatic and inspiring leader of men to have successfully commanded – and with such heroic aplomb – the fabulous Imperial Fleet.  Ah, but the cruelty of being castrated at puberty so that he could serve his ambitious Prince without a thought for his own posterity…

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Cultural emasculation of Zheng He’s descendants (from the 2015 production)

The theme of castration, of course, is central to the play and the text capitalizes on the curious blend of horror, fascination and ticklish humor eunuchry provokes. A graphic account of emasculation through the ages is gleefully enacted, whereby we learn that Zheng He would surely have been buried intact, had he been born a few centuries later, when well-born eunuchs were painlessly rendered infertile through protracted scrotal massage by professional gonad crushers. (We could revive this practice as a voluntary form of male contraception. Why not? It sounds excruciatingly and promiscuously pleasurable, and so much more humane then simply hacking it off.)

nooseAs a metaphor, castration can be self-imposed on a cultural, social and political level whereby a minority race – paradoxically as a survival tactic – becomes subservient to the hubristic egocentricity of a would-be Master Race.  The irony isn’t lost on us, in view of the primal politics of ethnicity that continues to be used as a weapon against those seeking liberation from ideological injustice and fascism. And what about the self-serving, self-castrating corporate climbers who wear their severed genitals around their necks as a symbol of their unmanhood?

Admiral Zheng He is the ultimate enigma: warrior, seafarer, strategist, diplomat, trader, imperial emissary, chief of the Chinese secret service, and eunuch by circumstance. Muslim by birth, yet a worshiper of the Sea Goddess and the Celestial Spouse. What a rich resource for epic dramatization!

Chee Sek Thim’s directorial vision, unavoidably perhaps, bears the imprint of his youthful stint as a Marion D’Cruz dancer; and the overwhelming influence of theater luminaries like Krishen Jit and Leow Puay Tin (whose 1988 production of 3 Children remains a stylistic milestone in Asian theater).  Sek Thim is a gifted and intelligent theater practitioner who will hopefully develop his own dramaturgical perspective, given time.  For taking on such a complex work as his directorial debut and bringing to life such a thought-provoking play, I wholeheartedly applaud his courage and gumption.

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Ida Mariana

The enthusiastic and talented cast of three men and two women impressed me with their acrobatic stamina, discipline and total dedication to the performance. Yet I felt they were self-conscious and uncomfortable with the all-too-predictable, overly choreographed movements.

Both the women (Ida Mariana and Zoë Christian) seemed more in command of themselves, while the men (Mark Choo Hoong Leong, Lim How Ngean, and Mark Teh) generally came across as a bit too effeminate. But perhaps I’m being unreasonable in demanding more sinew and virility in a play about a Grand Imperial Eunuch.

11 November 2000

Why Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral matters

Ah, Sweet Nostalgia!

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The Horfield Theatre Company’s October 2015 staging of A Slice of Saturday Night

Antares relives his teen years at A SLICE OF SATURDAY NIGHT

Some things you never forget. Like learning to French-kiss and finding yourself on Cloud Nine with a sore tongue and simply adoring the sensation. At 15 I was in the habit of “borrowing” my dad’s car and going to parties where some of the couples danced joined at the loins through the night. Never mind the discomfort of heavy petting in bucket seats of small cars parked in dark nooks or the buzz of mosquitoes in the syrupy night air dripping with pheromones.

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Sharizan Borizan

I was pretty glad to have caught Music Theatre’s replay of A Slice of Saturday Night on a Saturday night, but disappointed to find the house only half full. Doing theater in the Klang Valley is no picnic, it would appear. Give them musical comedy, light’n’easy, do it with gumption and gusto… and still they stay away. Right after the show I found myself SMSing half the contacts in my phonecard, telling them to go see the last matinee performance on Sunday, and I’m glad at least a few heeded my advice and went. Like me, they loved the show!

Perhaps I’m really just a conservative when it comes to theater, because this 1989 rock’n’roll musical by the Heather Brothers (whoever they are) is about as middle-of-the-road and mainstream as you can get.  And retro 1960s to boot.  In the end it’s not WHAT you do but HOW you do it that matters. The genre is irrelevant – as long as there’s zest and zing in the effort.

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Liau Siau Suan

Zest and zing abounded in this repeat performance (with a slightly different cast from the 1998 version) directed by Andy Cranshaw.  It’s a rare treat to find a show with no weak links. Every member of the cast – including the live 4-piece band and the barman (admirably played by Liau Siau Suan who also managed front of house duties, don’t ask me how he did it) – was very good indeed, though a few were particularly outstanding (but more about individual performances later).

The set was simple but utterly right: I stepped into the the Actors Studio Theater in Bangsar and found myself sitting in the Club A-Go-Go, magically transported back to the mid-1960s as soon as the band struck the opening chord. Okay, so the plot was basically Jack and Jill went on the pill, and started a sexual revolution. The songs – all 28 of them! – were parodies of 1960s pop hits by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Burdon and the Animals, the Dave Clark 5, Helen Shapiro, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, and Cilla Black. But they were good parodies, slickly executed by a totally pro band led by Helen Yap on keyboards, Mohd Yusoff Ibrahim aka Chobib on lead guitar, David Yee on bass, and Soegito Buno on drums.

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Nell Ng

Nell Ng played the peroxide blonde bombshell Penny and the very pregnant Shirl, and choreographed all the slinky moves. I’ll say it again: this girl is simply too amazing! Llewellyn Marsh made a superb Eddie, all awkward and gangly but perfectly lovable all the same.  Radhi Khalid was the supreme cad as Gary and quite funny as Terry the prototype hippie.  It’s hard to picture anyone but Derrick T as Eric “Rubber Legs” Devine, former rocker and owner of Club A-Go-Go. In the original UK production, “Rubber Legs” had a different surname (DeVere) but that’s quite irrelevant. Devine was fine with me, even if his stagey guffaw was rather diabolical – Mr T tossed off his lines and rocked through his solo numbers with inimitable flair and style.

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Radhi Khalid

Sharizan Borhan (a recording artist by day) was a marvelous Rick and it was a sheer delight to hear him sing. It was especially wonderful to see the chemistry between him and Sharon, exquisitely played by Samantha Lee (who’s married to Sharizan in real life).

Mary George has always turned in a solid performance and, as Gary’s long-suffering girlfriend Sue, she was totally convincing.  Newcomer Jaime Gooi was only slightly stiff as Frigid Bridget the ice queen, but I suppose that was in keeping with her stage character. A large part of the plot involves Eddie’s reckless boast to the guys that by the end of the night he’d succeed in getting Bridget to touch his crotch – and going on looks alone, most of the men in the audience wouldn’t have objected too strenuously if Ms Gooi had done exactly that to them.

A Slice of Saturday Night may be no more than an excuse for a highly entertaining evening of song and dance, but song and dance are Music Theater’s forte after all. I’d gladly see it again, preferably in the company of a nubile 18-year-old, but even an old flame will do.

25 July 2002

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LOOKS LIKE ‘VISITS’ IS HERE TO STAY

Antares checks outs the full-blooded reincarnation of Jit Murad’s “simple little piece”

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Jit Murad

“My critics are rarely as clever as me,” quips Jit Murad in his playwright’s notes.

I don’t know anyone else who can get away with a comment like that, even though he’s probably just stating the obvious. Puckish charm and ebullient wit aside, Jit Murad is indisputably a storyteller par excellence. And he has the medicine man’s healing touch. His characters are parodies of people you’re likely to encounter in Brave New Malaysia, but he has a knack of redeeming them even as he pokes gentle fun at them.

I caught a draft version of Visits in December 2001 when Ida Nerina showcased it for her directorial debut. It was lighthearted and enjoyable, and showed great promise – considering its humble beginnings in 1994 as three short monologues written for a reading by three actresses – Liza Othman, Sukania Venugopal, and Ida Nerina (who kept the only surviving copy of Jit’s original typewritten text).  In any case, the play was warmly received and this inspired Jit and Ida to flesh out and fine-tune the material for a full-blooded production, incorporating a multimedia screen and original music by Anton Morgan.

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Liza Othman

Visits is a wonderful workout for three accomplished actresses and does well enough without the frills. The pre-programmed screensaver effects (designed by Helena Song), though restrained and tasteful, did not add significantly to the production. Indeed, the kinetic backdrop occasionally detracted from the live action, and kept reminding me I was in a theater.  The key elements have to be the performers and the stories they tell. But sensitive lighting certainly helps, and Teo Kuang Han did a laudable job with the mood shifting.

The opening monologue by the loquacious nurse – a delightful character endearingly recreated by Liza Othman – is a tough bit of business for any actress. When she launches into the lengthy anecdote about the Mamak trader locking his wife in the basement with her maidservant each time he goes out of town, details tend to get lost, along with credibility. Hard to put a finger on the problem here, but I felt a bump the first time around too. Once past that point, the nurse comes into her own and becomes gloriously human and huggable. Liza Othman is a perennial pleasure to watch in action, so charged with warmth and earthy femininity is she.

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Vanidah Imran

Vanidah Imran was simply fantastic as Woman. Incredible empathy and appeal framed in unfeigned vulnerability. I badly wanted to take her to the movies and buy her a cappucino afterwards (preferably spiked with psilocybin). This Woman’s a soulsister, pulak! Lots of soul, a warm, befriendable presence on stage. And she looks so comfortable in satin pyjamas.

The catalytic rôle of Sister-in-Law was taken on by Sarah Shahrum, who took a few minutes to warm up the night I caught the play (perhaps she was conscious of her father’s bow-tied presence in the auditorium; or maybe the delayed response was simply my adjusting to not seeing her in a designer tudung, the way Sofia Jane played it). Once she lost herself (or I got used to her) in the character, her performance was impressive. Sarah Shahrum has exquisite poise and the potential to develop into a very fine actress.

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Sarah Shahrum

Seeing the play in its fresh incarnation allowed me to view it in a somewhat different context than as a directors’ workshop exercise. Was it intended as a study of three contemporary Malay women from different social backgrounds? Was the playwright using the monologues as subtle commentary on class conflicts within the ummah (the Malay Muslim community)? True, there were references to skin-tone prejudice (“Takes a lot of money to lighten your complexion, if you’re born with dark skin.”)  And the fact that the office boy who gets hanged for possession of cannabis is named Hakim (judge) – was that a veiled criticism of our barbaric drug laws or a weak pun on “hanging judge”?

The playwright himself sounded a bit defensive in his program notes: “The three women were intended to sound as if Tennessee Williams had written a Cerekarama (Malay TV drama).”  He swears he intended no “wanky grand unifying idea.”

An intellectual Malay friend who discussed the play with me afterwards wasn’t particularly bowled over by the proceedings. “People don’t talk like that in real life,” she protested. Obviously, not everyone in the Klang Valley is a fan of Jit Murad, Tennessee Williams, or Cerekarama.

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Ida Nerina, director

Speaking for myself, I was charmed by Jit’s ability to always identify the core of humanity in his characters and give them the opportunity to reveal their hidden virtues. Indeed, I found myself touched by the play’s essential poignancy and compassion. The vivacious talent that Visits has brought to the stage is also something to applaud. Indeed, it was Visits that got Liza Othman to grace the boards once again, after a long absence. And it was Visits that introduced superb actresses like Vanidah Imran and Melissa Saila (who played Woman in the earlier version) to English-language theater. And it was Visits that lured the delectable Sofia Jane back to the stage as the Sister-in-law in the first production – and introduced Sarah Shahrum’s acting skills to a whole new audience. Visits may never be acclaimed as the finest example of Jit’s work as a playwright, but the goodnatured humor and life-affirming pathos of the interwoven monologues will always prove an irresistible challenge to any aspiring actress or director.

Ida Nerina deserves a huge round of applause, not only for doing a commendable job of directing – but especially for having had the foresight to preserve the original script for posterity, and the tenacity and vision to see it realized in its fullness as a workable production.

February 2002

VISITS ~ AND REVISITS

Antares experiences dejá vù at the preview of Jit Murad’s new play

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Liza Othman (Zaidi Ahmad)

The last time I saw Liza Othman on stage was in 1988 when I played her husband in an original play by Maureen Ten. Jit Murad played our son. Then she got married (in real life) and vanished from public view until December 5th, 2001 – when Jit’s play VISITS was previewed under the Five Arts Centre/Actors Studio Directors’ Workshop Project with Ida Nerina making her directorial debut.

Liza Othman’s long sabbatical from the local stage was, I felt, a tremendous loss to  theater.  She is perhaps one of the most sensitive and versatile actresses I have had the pleasure of working with – apart, perhaps, from Fatimah Abu Bakar, who also gave up acting to devote herself to raising a family.  But in the interim we witnessed the arrival of many scintillating pros like Sukania Venugopal, Jo Kukathas, Joanna Bessey, Paula Malai Ali, Foo May Lyn, Sandra Sodhy, Shanthini Venugopal, Mary George, Nell Ng, Merissa Teh, Jerrica Lai, et al. Still, it was for me a poignant experience to watch Liza Othman in action again – even if she appeared just a wee bit jittery during the opening scene, which she carries more or less solo (the other actress, Melissa Saila, being all the while completely hidden under the bedclothes).

It didn’t take Liza long to win the audience over.

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Sofia Jane

I became an ardent fan of Sofia Jane the moment I saw her on screen in some best forgotten Melayu movie (no, it wasn’t Uwei Hajisaari’s controversial Perempuan, Isteri, dan… which had some unforgettable moments). Indeed, in Sofia Jane I thought we had the makings of a Malaysian Sophia Loren… and then she, too, got married and vanished from public view for several years.  VISITS marks Sofia’s long-hoped-for return to theatre, now as Sofia Jane Azman and a mother of two. She’s as rivetingly beautiful as ever – and still one of the finest actresses this country has ever produced. It was truly a treat to watch two of my favorite actresses on stage together in an effervescent play written by someone I’ve always loved and respected.

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Melissa Saila

Melissa Saila was making her debut in English-language theater, though she has starred in numerous Malay TV dramas and recently appeared in a much acclaimed Malay adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest.  Hers was a face new to me but she carried herself like a pro – and held her own against two absolutely charismatic and far more experienced actresses. There were a few moments when she lapsed into the excessive histrionics that’s long been a trademark of all Malay TV soaps – but then again the character she was playing probably grew up on a sudsy diet of melodrama. She, too, I’m happy to report, is gifted with star appeal – that special attribute Malays call berseri.

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Ida Nerina: directorial debut

Working with such a winning cast and with such a charmingly written text, Ida Nerina – herself a talented and vivacious actress – would have had to try very hard to come up with a lousy play. Since this is her debut as a director, one applauds heartily if the whole thing actually hangs together; one doesn’t delve into minute technicalities; one simply celebrates Ida’s triumph and the arrival of exciting new directorial talent. Besides, director, cast, and playwright now have seven weeks to fine-tune and tailor the occasionally fluffy material into better defined shape.

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Playwright Jit Murad

What of the play itself? Well, it’s very much a Jit Murad original. Natural-born storyteller Jit is a whiz at concocting Woody Allenish studies (“It’s my homage to Tennessee Williams,” the playwright insists) of a particular class and generation of Malays (in this instance three interesting specimens of Malay womanhood), gently poking fun at their foibles even as he redeems them with sheer lovability. Years of association with the Instant Café Theatre has made him expert at aiming pointed asides at the pompous, the hypocritical, and the politically unassailable while distracting us with rambling, yet thoroughly entertaining, monologues.

Gold Rain and Hailstones, which marked Jit’s debut as a playwright in the mid-90s, still ranks as a milestone event in local theater.  His next effort, The Storyteller, was overly long-winded but had its glorious moments and deserves to be revived in slightly edited form. It remains to be seen, when Visits opens for the public on January 30, 2002, if this one is going to mature into a major hit. Even as a work-in-progress it already has the makings of a minor masterpiece – thanks to the magic stirred into it by four beautiful and powerful women.

December 2001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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