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

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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?

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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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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LOOKS LIKE ‘VISITS’ IS HERE TO STAY

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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

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOT EXACTLY WILDE BUT WACKY ENOUGH

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Oscar Wilde (1854 ~ 1900)

Antares leaves the wife at home for THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

The foyer of the Actors Studio Theater in Bangsar saw a festive crowd on opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest. It was a blessed relief after seeing so many empty houses at recent productions. Seems that Oscar Wilde is alive and well in KL. Last year, Rey Buono’s politically resonant staging of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde drew good houses on most nights. One might remark that poor mistreated Oscar, more than a century later, has become an alternative culture hero in the Wilde East.

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Director Joe Hasham

About three years ago, the phenomenal Ivan Heng cross-dressed on stage in Emily of Emerald Hill. Subsequently, Chowee Leow followed suit in his sophisticated one person show, An Occasional Orchid. Then Na’a Murad (and later Rashid Salleh) impersonated Charley’s Auntie in Richard Gardner’s popular adaptation for local stage and TV. The cross-dressing trend – or, rather, tradition, if we hearken back to norms in Chinese opera and Elizabethan theater – continues with Joe Hasham’s camped-up (per)version of Earnest, which has almost the entire male cast in partial drag.

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Edwin Sumun

Rashid Salleh showed some nice leg as Algernon Moncrieff but needed some work on his lines. Edwin Sumun’s Jack Worthing was infamously foppish and was served with a garnishing of Cantonese that sometimes distracted (or perhaps detracted?). Ari Ratos was a highly irregular scream as a conically enhanced and somewhat cartoonish Miss Prism, while Na’a Murad pretty much played himself as the libidinous Rev. Canon Chasuble. Ahmad Ramzani Ramli portrayed Lane (the valet) as some inscrutable Arabian Nights genie, oriental despot, or hotel commissionaire; and Sham Sunder Binwani’s Merriman was a big fat intrusive Chinaman with an intimidating pigtail.

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Indi Nadarajah & Allan Perera

The casting of Allan Perera and Indi Nadarajah (of Comedy Court fame) as Gwendolen Fairfax and Lady Bracknell was perhaps inspired by their wonderful work as Mertle and Thavi in MenApause. Both rose to the occasion admirably: Perera turned in a virtuoso performance as Miss Fairfax, and Nadarajah’s Lady Bracknell was hilariously (and headshakingly) aiyo-yo.

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Gavin Yap

But the Drag Princess of the Year award must surely go to Gavin Yap as the virginal Cecily Cardew. With his demure gestures, precise inflections and cygneous (swanlake) arabesques, he was delectable enough to kiss. He certainly could have fooled me on a blind date. Yap, recently returned from performing arts studies and work in the US and UK, is definitely a welcome infusion of genuine talent.

An acapella chorus consisting of five petite females – REAL ones, whatever that implies – with angelic voices and sadistic body extensions charmed whenever it sang, but otherwise became merely an accessory on stage – and a somewhat distracting one at that. The original music – credited to a mysterious “C.33” – was appropriate and competent enough, so I suspect the coy anonymity was prompted by work permit constraints (but I hope to stand corrected on this).

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Production designer Paul Loosley

Speaking of accessories, there was a lavish abundance of visual gewgaws adorning the set, thanks to Paul Loosley’s raucously rococo production design: larger-than-life nude statues suffering from acute sexual repression, mutant sunflowers, Beardsley prints, a conspicuous framed painting of an aging fop on an easel, mural-sized facsimiles of a 30,000-word letter from the imprisoned Oscar Wilde to his lover Bosie, and an overhanging photographic enlargement of Wilde’s visage with the eyes blanked out. Loosley (award-winning director of advertising films who started out as an art director) obviously set upon his assignment with unstinting fervor and inspired flair.

The artsy, eccentric set was complemented by outrageously flamboyant costumes designed by Loh, a veteran wardrobe stylist for the advertising industry. A lot of creative effort, it appears, went into this Actors Studio and Comedy Court co-production – much of it culled from the advertising world. It’s a very positive thing indeed to see talented individuals in adbiz venture into showbiz, but it’s almost inevitable that the dictates of one profession do not always translate successfully into the other. The advertising profession thrives on imitation, parody, sensationalism and quick bytes – which may not be such a wonderful thing in the literary or dramatic arts – at least not in the long run.

For sure I had a good time at Hasham’s Earnest. It was a great party trick to see Indi Nadarajah as an overbearing Victorian dowager with a distinctly Tamil personality, and Allan Perera as her alternately coquettish and petulant Eurasian daughter. The sheer novelty effect – and the famous comedy duo’s irresistible appeal – made it a worthwhile outing. However, the overcampification of Algernon and Jack added little to the gay subtext, even with vernacular accents thrown in – apart from the fact that homosexuality acknowledges no ethnic boundaries. At times, the puerile flippancy actually blunted the sardonic edge of the Wilde wit by reducing it to the level of a schoolboy skit.

I wouldn’t rate this production “important” or “earnest” but it was undeniably fun.

2002

WILLY’S COMPLETE WORKS ….. IN TIGHTS AND TRAINERS

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complete-works

Antares has a hoot attending the Bard’s 439th birthday bash at the Securities Commission

It was a wonderful surprise to find printed instructions enjoining the April 23rd opening night audience at The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) to pay tribute to the Bard of Avon on his 439th birthday by donning a party hat, popping a banger, and singing “Happy Birthday, Dear Willy” at the end of the show – on pain of “grievous embarrassment.”

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Berynn Schwerdt, Tim Schwerdt & Ezra Bix

The evening, of course, was peppered with Willy jokes and supercharged with madcap humor as a trio of ace performers took on the supreme challenge of performing all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays in 97 minutes flat. Frankly, I was expecting something slapstick and silly in the vein of the 1960s Carry On series – but the results far exceeded expectations and left everyone feeling light-hearted, highly fortunate and well entertained.

What made it all work so marvelously well was the suave and literate script by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, exhilaratingly interpreted by three versatile virtuosos – Ezra Bix and the Schwerdt brothers, Berynn and Tim – under the crisp and crafty direction of John Saunders. Such fast-paced ensemble work demands a great deal of inventiveness, physical stamina and well-grounded technique from the actors, and no one could have asked for a better matched team than Bix, Schwerdt and Schwerdt.

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Ezra Bix

NIDA-trained Ezra Bix, perhaps the most seasoned of the trio, cut his stage teeth with the Australian Shakespeare Company and as a stand-up comedian, apart from extensive work in film and TV. He looks a bit like Bruce Willis – and like Willis, can play just about anyone including himself. His impeccable timing and reassuring stage presence were most obvious when he was “abandoned” by the Schwerdt brothers for several minutes and had the stage all to himself. His portrayal of an actor “left in the lurch” and forced to improvise was absolutely a gem (we got a couple of classic one-liners from Ezra, my favorite being: “What do you call a joke that doesn’t work? … A public servant?”)

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Berynn Schwerdt

Berynn Schwerdt reminded me of a young Sir John Gielgud, the venerable Shakespearean actor; with his gaunt, gangly good looks and histrionic voice, Berynn consummately anchored the “Shakespearean” ambience on stage. His wide and varied acting experience runs the gamut from musicals, dramas, comedies, television, film and opera to commercials, guerrilla theater, theater-in-education, puppetry and agit-prop performance. Being the tallest of the three, it fell to Berynn to play the tragically flawed authority figure – a rôle he carried with effortless grace and masterful confidence.

Shkspr_posterBerynn’s younger brother Tim is endowed with a rubbery, Robin Williamsian face and the mischievous charm of the eternal adolescent. Tim took on most of the drag rôles and contributed generously to the school-boyish high jinks – including bringing on stage a mechanized Godzilla, drowning himself (as Ophelia) with a mug of water, and pretending to vomit on a girl in the front row. His stage tantrums were very much part of the fun and frolic, but his amazing sensitivity as a serious actor came through briefly when he upstaged Berynn by “stealing” one of his soliloquies.

completeworksAn intrinsic part of the magic was the ingenious way the three actors played themselves playing a hundred different Shakespeare characters, or fragments thereof. It was absolutely essential that the trio win over the audience right from the outset, which gave them artistic licence to Monty Pythonize the Bard’s venerated lines without giving offence to the true believers. The original version of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) was performed by the infamous RSC (Reduced Shakespeare Company) in 1987. Its Shakespeare-according-to-the-Marx-Brothers approach was an immediate hit. In 1993 the production opened in London and has gone on to earn itself the epithet, “London’s Longest Running Comedy.”

The trio inserted some local color with a few well-chosen Malay phrases and a smattering of Malaysian allusions, including at least one Singaporean joke. It was no mean feat getting the entire audience to enter the spirit of total silliness but Bix, Schwerdt and Schwerdt managed it like trained facilitators at an Asiaworks seminar. They split the crowd into four sections and coaxed and cajoled us into playing various parts of Ophelia’s troubled psyche. I was part of the father aspect that had to shout: “Get thee to a nunnery!” Another section, the mother aspect, had to yell something even wilder: “Sudahlah! My biological clock’s ticking (jabbing at wristwatches real or imaginary)… and I want to have a baby NOW!!!”

bix+schwerdtsThe trio even managed to take a verbal swipe at Bush and Cheney and milk a chortle or two out of the current SARS-phobia (the nurse in Romeo and Juliet comes out in an all-too-familiar surgical mask). The script itself encourages a fair amount of ad-libbing and is engagingly self-aware and street savvy. Imagine the tragedy of Othello retold in rap, or Titus Andronicus as a TV culinary series, or Hamlet played backwards – and you’ll have a rough idea what to expect. But be prepared to be taken even farther out on a comedic limb. This is an evening of inspired madness you won’t regret (provided you have the budget for it).

bixberynntimschwerdtWe’re tickled pink that HSBC, in conjunction with IMG, Tim Woods and Spirit Entertainment have decided it was time KL theatergoers got a taste of the exciting possibilities of Shakespeare as pure farce. The choice of venue was an intriguing but successful one: this was my first experience of the Securities Commission Auditorium – and I must say it proved to be a splendid setting for Willy’s 439th birthday bash. Virtual bouquets galore to the indomitable trio of Bix, Schwerdt and Schwerdt.

25 April 2003

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