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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]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Metaphors Be With You!

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Matt Crosby as Cyber & Zahim Albakri as Putra in a scene from Know No Cure

The moment you start focusing your attention on them, metaphors wriggle right out of the woodwork, spring from the ground beneath your feet like mushrooms. Back in Y2K – that pivotal year in which the Earth’s Axis was realigned by the crowning of Neocon Emperor George “Caligula” Bush – I almost gave up on romance, succumbed to forwarding bulk emails, and stopped calling myself “a man of letters.” At that low point in my life I was visited by the Alphabet. More precisely, like a scene out of Sesame Street, the letters A and Z showed up at my door cleverly disguised as Adam Broinowski and Zahim Albakri.

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Adam Broinowski

They were on a mission to gather facts and impressions about the Orang Asli amongst whom I live. We spoke to some villagers, trekked to a spectacular waterfall, and discussed environmental issues. Zahim explained that Adam was doing research for a play he was incubating, and that he was in Malaysia for three months on a cross-cultural project sponsored by Asialink. Adam was sufficiently charming for me to put him on my permanent email list; and he would occasionally zap me a few lines from Japan where he had joined an avant-garde theater company called Gekidan Kaitaisha (Theater of Deconstruction).

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Zahim Albakri

On April 28th, 2007, I bumped into A and Z again, this time at the home of Marion D’Cruz where a lovely feast was in progress, celebrating the memory of theater icon Krishen Jit. They had an affable actor named Matt Crosby in tow, and I was told that Adam’s play, Know No Cure, was opening mid-May, starring Zahim and Matt. This was to be the world premiere of a play written in 2001 and which has since been further developed and refined, with Adam and Zahim co-directing. In the seven years since we first met, Adam Broinowski has grown a Mephistophelean Van Dyke and acquired an enigmatic aura: he appears more confident, more focused, more masterful, and there’s a wizardly twinkle in his eyes that tells me he’s onto something mysterious and powerful.

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Adam Bronoiwski in Vivisection Vision: Animal Reflections (a performance piece)

I google Adam Broinowski and am amazed by all the things he’s done: produced a documentary on Japanese subcultures called Hell Bento (aired on SBS in 1995); written a bunch of plays (The Great Gameshow of Pernicious Influences and Hotel Obsino in 1996 and 1999); studied Noh and a bit of butoh in Japan at Shizuoka University as a Japan Foundation fellow (which means he speaks fluent Japanese); performed in seven countries as acrobat, clown, dancer, multimedia artist; acted in a TV series while working on his PhD at the University of Melbourne; and, at 36, he’s several months younger than both my second daughter and my second wife. It’s hard not to feel a twinge of vicarious paternal pride talking to this multi-talented young man who has dedicated himself totally to all the artistic pursuits I’d wish upon my own son.

“Tell me a little about Know No Cure,” I say to Adam. “What elements do you think will entice Malaysians to watch the show?”

“Well, Matt plays a very sick Mat Salleh named Cyber and Zahim plays a Malay surgeon named Putra who’s forgotten his own roots. The action is set in the near future in a fictitious and utterly sterile place called Jaya.”

“Sounds like an exquisitely inspired extended metaphor,” I smile, “exactly the sort of theme I’d pick if asked to write a play.” Adam’s eyes are intense and earnest. He embodies the idealism of all Sagittarians, and his love affair with Japan has given his mind a distinctly Zen edge. He assures me the visual elements will be exciting and provocative. Most importantly, the chemistry between Matt and Zahim is working out fine.

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Matt Crosby

Matt Crosby’s professional accomplishments are no less reassuring than Adam’s. Equally versatile, he’s done radio, TV, film; acted, directed, scripted, designed, and managed; studied and toured in Japan with Shinjuku Ryozanpaku (a leading contemporary theater company). Matt graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in 1981 and was artistic director of the Actor’s Furniture Group from 1996 to 2000. He has explored a variety of performance techniques – Suzuki, Grotowski, Kristen Linklater, and neuro-kinetic expression (whatever that is).

In his role as Cyber, he represents Faustian man’s industrial-corporate-scientific mindset, the metaphoric terminus of western civilization. Cyber is hospitalized while visiting Jaya and is to be operated on by Dr Putra – played by Zahim Albakri, one of Malaysia’s most highly acclaimed actors and a Cammy award-winning director many times over.

Cyber’s diseased condition is reflected in the unhealthy state of the natural environment. Will Putra cure Cyber – or will he himself end up contaminated? The audience is advised that Al Gore will NOT be making a cameo appearance in this production. This is beyond politics, this is hybrid theater from the thinking heart, and it focuses on extinction – of ancient wisdom as well as of species (and that includes Homo supposedly sapiens) – an urgent issue we ignore at our own peril.

The world premiere (16 May 2007) of Adam Broinowski’s Know No Cure marks fifty years of nationhood and cross-cultural ties between two former British colonies. You wouldn’t want to miss out on this exciting artistic collaboration.

9 May 2007

FOUR LEGS GOOD: WILD RICE CELEBRATES AN ORWELLIAN CENTENNIAL

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Ivan Heng’s 2003 restaging of George Orwell’s classic is wonderfully thought-provoking

IT’S BEEN AGES since I last read Animal Farm, undoubtedly one of George Orwell’s best-known works. So it was a pleasure indeed to be reacquainted with this timeless allegory – “A Fairy Story,” Orwell called it – through Wild Rice’s production of Ian Wooldridge’s faithful stage adaptation, for an appreciative Singapore audience in September 2003.

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Singaporean theater prodigy Ivan Heng

Directed by the immensely gifted Ivan Heng, Animal Farm impressed with the caliber of the performers, the quirkiness of the set, the artful make-up, and Philip Tan’s animated live music (a performance in itself). Heng opted for an unexpectedly sober and only slightly zany dramatization of the plot.  

Relying largely on stylized movements and a very disciplined cast, Heng’s directorial vision was reminiscent of the “3D effect” of computer-generated animation (e.g., the Dreamworks production of A Bug’s Life in which the characterizations blur all boundaries between cartoon and realism). With well-defined physical mannerisms, the actors effectively created vivid animal personas that somehow made them human without anthropomorphizing them.

AF3Lim Yu-Beng and Selena Tan were convincingly horsey as Boxer and Mollie, steadfast but a bit slow on the uptake. Ivan Heng, Gene Sha Rudyn, and Pam Oei were pricelessly piggish as Napoleon, Snowball and Squealer. As the ruthlessly ousted deputy, Sha Rudyn’s Anwarish goatee harked back to Leon Trotsky – and he was equally brilliant as Benjamin the literate but phlegmatic donkey, and cockily comical as the resident rooster. Michael Ian Corbidge’s Farmer Jones was a John Bullish political cartoon down to his Union Jack underpants, and he also doubled as Pilkington – a cross between Uncle Sam and a redneck evangelist entrepreneur. The casting of ruddy-faced angmoh Corbidge as Jones was an oblique allusion to our colonial past – a political subtext that wasn’t lost on the audience. When Napoleon harangues the animals and asks querulously if they want Farmer Jones to return and reclaim Manor Farm, it sounds like the sort of dire warning against the dangers of globalization you might hear at any Umno General Assembly.

Ivan Heng’s Napoleon was a masterful study of a charismatic leader’s steady metamorphosis into demiurgic despotism. The political scapegoating of his erstwhile deputy into Public Enemy No. 1, leading to inquisitorial witch-hunts and party purges to divert attention from gross mismanagement, were chillingly, goosebumpily real – as Heng pigged out completely on his juicy rôle without ever succumbing to the temptation to “ham” it up.

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As agitprop chief Squealer, Pam Oei’s high-pitched stridency evoked eerie memories of China’s cultural revolution when party cadres in Mao suits brandished copies of the little Red book at all potential dissidents and heretics. But hysterical Squealers are found in every ministry of “information.”

animal-farm-wild-riceAudience participation consisted of our being invited to recite the post-colonial doctrine of “Four legs good, two legs baaaaaaaaaaaad!” in appropriately sheeplike tones. Indeed, since the only farm animals not represented on stage were the sheep, it fell to the audience to take on that rôle like good law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. For our valiant efforts we were paid off in sponsored pre-election apples.

But with changing realities – and lucrative joint ventures signed between the porcine farm management and Pilkington the American corporate representative – leaflets had to be dropped from the rafters in four languages (English, Tamil, Malay and Chinese) proclaiming the new-era ideology of four-legs-good-two-legs-better. Another “Farm Development Project” to serve the needs of progressive animals, brought to us by Napoleon, the fine upstanding porker in a well-cut dark suit and red tie – standard uniform of the nefarious Illuminati World Management Team sported by NWO executives and their political proxies on all important occasions.

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What Ivan Heng has achieved through this hip and savvy re-staging of Animal Farm with a distinctly ASEAN flavor is a revitalization of Orwell’s classic study of the neo-feudal mechanics of political power, giving it a fresh, contemporary sheen, rich in local color.

AF4The somber theme of bad times getting worse is dynamically offset by very physical performances, and the insertion of a garish, carnivalesque grand finale – abetted throughout by the vigorous live music – mostly percussive – provided by an enormously exuberant and talented Philip Tan: he performs offstage for the most part, though visibly, but occasionally leaps onstage and contributes to the surrealistic mayhem. Air-conditioning ducts feature prominently as multi-purpose stage props, representing the pseudo-mystical fascination of newfangled technology – as well as the animal butcher’s van in which Boxer is carted off for slaughter when he outlives his usefulness to the System.

In short, Wild Rice’s Animal Farm was a totally credible – and more than creditable – tribute to George Orwell’s acute insight into the ploys and pitfalls of political power, and his dystopian view of the human condition. The production has been invited to tour New Zealand in early 2004 – and, hopefully, Malaysian audiences will get to see it soon after that.  [Note: Ivan Heng’s Animal Farm was successfully staged in New Zealand, Tasmania, Hong Kong, and restaged in Singapore – but it still hasn’t happened in Malaysia, although in August 2017 a Malay version titled Kandang, directed by Omar Ali, is to be staged at KLPAC]. 

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Ivan Heng’s first staging of Animal Farm in 2002 earned him the DBS-Life Theatre Award for Best Director. In his director’s notes for the souped-up 2003 version, Heng states: “This production was a gut reaction to the ‘War against Terror’ in Iraq. I remember sitting in front of the television on March 20th, feeling sick to the core as I watched the first bombs on Iraq fall. If there is one thing I’m learning, it is how Governments can become so separate from the very people who vote them into power. Watching the news made me think about how the media has the power to distort and manipulate the truth. It made me think about my responsibility as an artist. If only to understand my personal response to the events of the world, I was searching for a way of expressing my confusion and disappointment.”

“In the world of Animal Farm, most speechifying and public palaver is bullshit and instigated lying, and though many characters are good-hearted and mean well, they can be frightened into closing their eyes to what’s really going on.” – Margaret Atwood

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George Orwell @ Eric Blair

BORN ERIC ARTHUR BLAIR on June 25, 1903 in Bengal, George Orwell’s centennial in 2003 stirred up some controversy about the validity of his status as a literary icon, with leftwing critics bristling over the fact that Animal Farm had been co-opted as an antisocialist tract by rightwing interests.

His detractors have remarked on Orwell-Blair’s long history of hobnobbing with the secret police – as a police officer in Burma, BBC propagandist for India and Southeast Asia, and British Intelligence consultant on anti-communist strategies during the early days of the Cold War. Whose side was he on? Was he in truth the maverick Winston Smith or master manipulator O’Brien (two key characters in 1984) – or was he perhaps both?

Some of the sharpest minds are recruited for psyops (psychological warfare) and Eric Blair just happened to have an acute literary flair – and a profound loathing for the cynical mass-control mechanisms installed by the ruling elite to perpetuate its feudalistic stranglehold on the human imagination. Upon leaving Burma he embraced anarchism with a vengeance, and then swung to the extreme left, fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Then he got disenchanted by the communist movement and chose the life of a penniless vagabond for several years – an experience that spawned his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), and later The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).

tony-blairThe soul’s yearning for freedom is doomed to futility in Orwell’s universe, and one gets the sense that he finally gives up fighting the Status Quo because he can see no way out: it’s a task he finds morally repugnant, but he will serve the Dark Lords of the Matrix by inserting himself into 10 Downing Street as a future prime minister – not as an Orwell, of course, but as a Blair – in any case, as someone supremely fluent in Doublethink and Newspeak.

Therein lies the poignant irony of Orwell’s dark, visionary novels – especially 1984 (written in 1948) which is a perfect prescription for a Big Brother power elite ruling through sloganeering, disinformation and public relations – and when all that fails, ruthless police brutality. Precisely the sort of world we find ourselves living in today, where war is peace and might is right, and history an infinitely rewritable cut-and-paste business.

Winston Smith, the chief protagonist of 1984, is turned around by the mind control experts in Room 101 where, confronted by his deepest, darkest fears, his rebellious individualism is broken – and the novel concludes bleakly with the socially rehabilitated citizen Smith drinking Victory gin at the local and watching Big Brother on the boob tube along with all the other faceless plebes – while the chorus of a popular ditty echoes in his brain: “Under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me.”

But Orwell’s intellectual integrity and his extraordinary skill as a writer more than redeem his own internal conflicts – and his readers are left with the onus to seek, and ultimately find, a non-polarized resolution beyond the dire straits of divide-and-rule dualism.

25 November 2003

Burrrp… Simply Sedap!

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Antares pigs out over Jit Murad’s SPILT GRAVY ON RICE

Good home cooking imparts a marvelous sense of well-being. Who was it who defined patriotism as a fond memory of all the wonderful things we tasted in our childhood?Well, that makes Jit Murad a true patriot and an even truer playwright. Simply because he has a knack of serving up some timely home truths without ever sounding pedantic or preachy, and his brilliant agility with words makes a long story seem short and sweet. Through the rich and spicy stew of human melodrama generated by just one genetic hodgepodge of a family, Jit brings the story of modern Malaysia up to date with sagely wit and deep compassion.

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Dato’ Rahim Razali as Bapak

His unapologetically polygamous Bapak – impressively portrayed by the highly durable Dato’ Rahim Razali – redeems the image of the patriarch as progenitor, our father on earth. Which is no easy feat considering the boorish, bullying shadow side of the Bapak figure that dominates our political history. In the gentlest possible voice, the playwright derides a wawasan without otak – a national vision with little intelligence or soul.  His allusion to the abysmal events of May 13, 1969 – which have for decades marred the national psyche and perpetrated the unhappy ethos of aggressive denial (and the compulsive dishonesty it breeds) – was handled with incredible grace and tenderness. At a time when the nation is confronted with the imminent departure of an overbearing and all-powerful Bapak, the play resonates on more levels than can be grasped with one viewing. And yet, Jit’s astute observations transcend the pettiness of politics and attain the sublime heights of a humane social philosophy that heals old wounds and reconciles apparent contradictions.

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Sean Ghazi as Husni

Bapak’s five children (actually six, all from different mothers) represent a cross-section of the educated class: Zakaria is a rake (“You mean he’s the black sheep of the family?” “No, more like the black goat!”) whose rebellion against his father’s value system makes him a cynical opportunist (which he blames on his piratic ancestry); Kalsom is a controversial (read attention-craving) dramaturge and poet totally engrossed with her own artistic ambitions; Darwis, a frustrated academic turned literary critic and family biographer; Husni, a successful architect and closet gay; and Zaiton, a typical aspiring Toh Puan ensnared in the comfortable complacency of the haute bourgeoisie.  Bapak has a few more tricks up his sleeve, but it’s not for me to reveal them here.

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Bernice Chauly as Kalsom

While the casting was astute, the performances were slightly uneven. Reza Zainal Abidin and Sean Ghazi were absolutely spot on as Darwis and Husni. Elaine Pedley was an utter delight as the winsome Willow Gomez (“an over-enthusiastic interpretative dancer”) who also stood in as the memory of all the women in Bapak’s life. Benjy and Eijat were excellent as Azri and Michelle (Husni’s gay lover and Zakaria’s transvestite friend), and Ahmad Ramzani Ramli wholly credible as Kalsom’s faithful assistant (and worshiper).

Soefira Jaafar’s affected interpretation of Zaiton was not altogether convincing, but we may attribute that to her relative inexperience as an actor. Bernie Chan, making her acting debut, was elegantly entertaining as Hortense Chia, Zaiton’s confidante and childhood friend. Bernice Chauly looked really smashing as Kalsom and so did Charon Mokhzani as Zakaria – but their long absence from the boards made them a wee bit self-conscious in the early scenes, although both evidently possess thespian skills aplenty. One hopes their return to the limelight will stir up the adrenaline sufficiently for them to get hooked all over again.

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Raja Maliq, set designer

It’s an exciting venture indeed to be part of the creation of an original play and the entire cast and crew deserve a mighty round of applause for the wonderful energy they invested in bringing Jit Murad’s fourth (and most mature) full-length play to life. Mac Chan’s lighting was precise and efficient; and Raja Maliq’s set design, which resembled a giant closet, rather ingenious, though the thin plywood construction seemed somewhat wobbly. The well crafted sound by Wong Pek Fui was, on the night I caught the performance, miscued a couple of times by an inexperienced operator – but that was perhaps the only amateurish touch in an otherwise commendable first staging of a complex dramatic work. The material is so engagingly textured that it can be interpreted in endless ways, and it’s almost certain that Spilt Gravy On Rice will see many more incarnations in years to come and in places yet undreamed of.

Director Zahim Albakri has molded, with loving attention and intuitive aplomb, Jit Murad’s delectable text into a nourishing, soul-satisfying theatrical experience.  Rise, Sir Jit and Sir Zahim, and receive your well-earned accolades and hugs.

Oh, by the way, look out for a couple of unnamed characters (Men In White) whose surprise cameo appearance alone is worth risking an evening out in the permanent haze of KL.

2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re off to off the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz!

offthewizardWho among us has not been amused and delighted by the extraordinary spectacle of Munchkins bursting into song and dance in celebration of the Wicked Witch’s demise?

Have we not wondered, at different moments in our life, if we were more like the brainless Scarecrow, the heartless Tin Man, or the Cowardly Lion?

And, just like Dorothy, have we never come to the conclusion, after a surfeit of incredible adventures, that there’s no place like Home?

When MGM released in 1939 the Hollywood version of what had already achieved cult status as a stage musical, L. Frank Baum’s immortal classic The Wizard of Oz swiftly won the hearts of a worldwide audience.

I don’t remember how old I was the first time I caught the movie in my hometown but it certainly left many vivid images imprinted in my impressionable young mind. So when The Wizard of Oz was restaged between April and May 2012 at KLPAC by Pan Productions – a young and vigorous outfit helmed by the highly talented Nell Ng, Peter Ong and Alizakri Alias – I looked forward greatly to catching it.

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Radhi Khalid as the Tin Man, Stephanie Van Driesen as Dorothy Gale, Peter Ong as The Scarecrow, and special guest star Wolfgang as Toto

I wasn’t disappointed. It was as wonderful a production of a time-tested favorite as any you’re likely to see in any major city. Director-choreographer Nell Ng opted to stick close to the general tone and flavor of the Hollywood version and found herself the perfect Dorothy Gale in Stephanie Van Driesen (who even bears a passing resemblance to the young Judy Garland and, more importantly, is a well-rounded talent in terms of acting, dancing and singing).

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Tria Aziz, a magnificently malevolent Wicked Witch of the West

Another outstanding casting choice was Tria Aziz as Almira Gultch and the Wicked Witch of the West whose iridescent green makeup and powerful singing voice made her a candidate for the best supporting actress award. But, then, many other key players were equally impressive – particularly Peter Ong (Hunk/Scarecrow), Radhi Khalid (Hickory/Tin Man), and Zalila Lee (Zeke/Cowardly Lion). Special mention must be made of Wolfgang the terrific terrier who took on the challenge of playing Toto.

The multimedia effects by a digital projection outfit called Dam Interactive were, in a word, wizardly. They played a significant role in the success of the production, convincingly conjuring a wide range of atmospheres – from a violent tornado to enchanted forests, spooky castles, and an Emerald Palace fit for a Wonderful Wizard. Musical director Eric Carter Hah deserves a standing ovation for bringing the fairly complex score to life with such effortless ease I initially thought I was hearing a pre-recorded soundtrack. Then I realized there was an 11-piece orchestra hidden backstage.

Seeing The Wizard of Oz as a stage musical for the first time in my life was most definitely a treat. Even more so since many of the talented and charming cast happen to be dear old friends. As a treat for all the senses, Nell Ng’s Wizard left little to be desired – and, as I told her afterwards, my only complaint was that the air-conditioning in KLPAC was so cold I found myself sitting on my hands between rounds of hearty applause.

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Suhaili Micheline as the good Witch of the North

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L. Frank Baum in 1911

I decided to do a bit of research on the man who created the Land of Oz – that colorful character named Lyman Frank Baum (15 May 1856 ~ 6 May 1919) and found him to be way too complex to summarize. In his youth he got hold of a simple printing press and became an editor-journalist-publisher. Then he got into poultry breeding and traded in fireworks. At the same time he was infatuated with the theater and squandered a large portion of his wealth investing in unsuccessful plays. He took on a great many roles, using stage names like Louis F. Baum and George Brooks.

In 1880 Baum’s father built him a theater in Richburg, New York, and he wasted no time writing, producing, directing and acting in plays – even composing songs and conducting workshops in stagecraft . Just as he was beginning to reap some acclaim, a fire destroyed his theater, along with his costume collection and the only copies of his playscripts.

wizard_titleFailure and ill fortune continued to dog L. Frank Baum until his 44th birthday – when his collaboration with illustrator W.W. Denslow yielded a best-selling children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Thereafter Baum began churning out a stream of children’s books based on his Oz characters.

Five years later he announced a grand plan to buy an island off the California coast where he would build a gigantic theme park named “The Marvelous Land of Oz – a fairy paradise for children.” Eleven-year-old Dorothy Talbot of San Francisco was to be crowned Queen of Oz and the park was to be administered by a committee of child advisors. Baum himself intended to relocate to the island where he would presumably assume the role of a real-life wizard.

Alas, the theme park project was abandoned after another theatrical venture, The Woggle-Bug, failed at the box office. Baum even founded a film company in 1914 called The Oz Film Manufacturing Company but lost a lot of money on the venture. One gets the distinct feeling that L. Frank Baum was born just a wee bit too early. It took another visionary entrepreneur, a fellow named Walter Elias Disney – born shortly after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became a runaway best-seller – to realize all of L. Frank Baum’s fantastic dreams.

Among the interesting details I unearthed about L. Frank Baum, the fact that he had the tendency to look askance at religion caught my attention. Although raised as a Methodist, Baum expressed a great deal of skepticism about orthodox dogmas. At one point he joined the Episcopal Church – but mainly for the purpose of participating in community theatricals.

In 1897 – influenced by Matilda Joslyn Gage, Baum’s feminist mother-in-law – Baum and his wife became Theosophists. The Theosophical Society had been established in 1875 by Henry Steel Olcott (a military investigator, journalist and lawyer) and the famous Russian mystic, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Theosophists hold that “there is no religion higher than truth.”

In the light of this, can any traces of L. Frank Baum’s metaphysical inclinations be found in The Wizard of Oz? Considering that the Wizard presides like a deity – inspiring awe, reverence and not a little fear – over the inhabitants of Oz, isn’t it delightful that it takes a fearless and innocent little girl named Dorothy to gain entry to the Emerald Palace and penetrate the Wizard’s high-tech public relations apparatus, so that the Great Wizard of Oz is ultimately exposed as an eccentric “extraterrestrial” trickster, a master illusionist, a professional thaumaturge – albeit a disarmingly benign one?

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It doesn’t require too much of a stretch of the imagination to draw a few parallels with The Matrix movies – wherein the Archons or Fates appear as a funky assortment of complex metaprograms running the holographic pseudo-reality from which Thomas Anderson aka Neo the hacker escapes (after he swallows the Red Pill offered by Morpheous) and fulfills his destiny as “The One.”

Indeed, I would venture the opinion that The Wizard of Oz qualifies as a forerunner of The Matrix. It’s easy enough to replace the Wicked Witch of the West with Agent Smith. Now I’m seriously looking forward to the musical version of The Matrix.

6 November 2012

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Does this qualify as political commentary?

SO… HOW DID THE CAST RATE?

Antares reviews The Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral

KuoPaoKun

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!

ClubAgoGo

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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