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Ah, Sweet Nostalgia!

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

Antares relives his teen years at A SLICE OF SATURDAY NIGHT

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

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Sharizan Borizan

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

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

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Liau Siau Suan

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

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

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Nell Ng

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

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Radhi Khalid

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

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

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

25 July 2002

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Storming Destiny’ Gains Thunderous Applause

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Shantona Kumari Bag’s solo Bharata Natyam debut keeps Antares on the edge of his seat and restores his optimistic outlook

Whenever I get invited to a show in KL these days I experience a mild anxiety attack. You see, it’s a 3-hour drive to the city and back from my mountain hideaway; and since the price of petrol shot up and my van’s air-con system broke down, these excursions have become drastically more arduous. I usually manage to find a few good reasons to stay home – but on the evening of July 27th, as the musicians took their place on stage and the lights went up on the stunning set of Storming Destiny, I felt extremely privileged to be present.

Every aspect of the production restored my faith in the possibility of total excellence – from Sivarajah Natarajan’s brilliant lighting and set design to the impassioned and impeccably performed live music. And, certainly, the sheer poetry and precision of Shantona’s epic dance was no less than a divine revelation. It seemed to me she had fully internalized the choreography and was simply reveling in the ecstasy of pure expression. This became more obvious as the 24-year-old dancer warmed up during the second sequence, Jatiswaram, and from there on, surrendered her whole being to embodying the Dance of Life itself. By the time she launched herself into the climactic Thillana, Shantona had sections of the audience cheering and gasping at her virtuosity. She received a well-earned standing ovation.

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Though I am by no means an authority on or even knowledgeable about Bharata Natyam, I sensed that this was an entirely fortuitous and ground-breaking collaboration of remarkable talents. Storming Destiny successfully navigated the hazardous artistic seas where innovation collides with tradition. Shantona Kumari Bag injected a palpable intelligence and self-assured awareness into Jayanthi Subramaniam’s robust choreography and made it her own; she also broke with tradition by adding a contemporary feel to her arangetram (solo debut) with her self-penned poetic narration and the inclusion of dramatic devices – like bringing her younger sister Shobhna Devika on stage as her alter ego.

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Bharata Natyam performances are famously taxing on the dancer as well as the audience. Quite often in the past I have found myself closing my eyes and drifting away, usually towards the middle of the show. However, my attention did not falter for an instant throughout Storming Destiny. So riveting was Shantona’s stage presence, and so exhilarating her joy, that time seemed to accelerate and space expand, energizing me on a deep, cellular level.

shantona-dancer2We have in Shantona Kumari Bag a very determined and strong-spirited young dancer who will soon be affectionately referred to as “the dancing doctor.” Currently a fifth-year medical student at the University of New South Wales, Australia, Shantona took a year off to reclaim her divine gift of dance – having decided against sacrificing her artistic nature to the rigorous demands of medical science. Instead, she would make a bold attempt to combine her true passion with her chosen vocation (she comes from a family of doctors). Storming Destiny proved conclusively that it can indeed be achieved – and with magnificent aplomb too.

shantonaFB2As a young student at Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra Dance Academy, Shantona displayed a fondness and flair for Odissi (an expressive, almost sensual dance form from Orissa, India) – excelling particularly in abhinaya, the esoteric art of portraying a whole spectrum of emotions through one’s physical form. Perhaps the mental discipline of her medical studies helped steel Shantona’s resolve to master the more formal technique of Bharata Natyam.

Ramli Ibrahim, who ranks among the world’s best male Odissi dancers (earning the highest praise from connoisseurs and critics during a recent tour in India), has an unerring nose for talent. Over the decades he has wet-nursed the birth of at least a dozen dancing stars in the Classical Indian Dance firmament – including the likes of Geetha Sankaran, Mavin Khoo, Guna, Rathimalar Govindarajoo, January Low, Revathi Tamilselvam, and Vidhya Puspanathan. Shantona Kumari Bag undoubtedly deserves a prominent place in Sutra’s permanent hall of fame.

shantonaFBAnother outstanding performance at Storming Destiny was delivered by the musicians comprising Gomathi Nayagam (vocals), Jaya Sekhar (veena and violin), Theban Arumugam (mridangam), A. Perampalam (flute), and Ashok Kumar (tanpura) – with Ramli Ibrahim doing an absolutely masterful job of timekeeping on the nattuvangam. Gomathi Nayagam (who currently teaches at the Singapore Fine Arts Society) blissed out the audience with the celestial beauty of his voice and his flawless pitch.

An unexpected bonus on the first night of Storming Destiny was the marvelously humorous and touching speech by guest of honor Toh Puan Uma Sundari Sambanthan. Everyone present shared the profound pleasure and pride that Shantona’s parents, Drs Arun Kumar Bag and Mridula Kumari, must surely have felt.

When the very air we breathe is befouled with pollutants – and the banal misrule of mediocrity seems oppressively unchangeable – an event as consummately produced and aesthetically gratifying as Storming Destiny becomes all the more therapeutic and laudable. I salute Ramli Ibrahim and Sutra for being such good medicine for the soul. And, of course, for nurturing such quintessential talents as Shantona Kumari Bag and for giving Malaysians a genuine cause for celebration.

14 August 2007

[First published in the New Straits Times, 24 August 2007. Photographs courtesy of Shantona Kumari]

She’s A Shooting Star! 

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Karenina1

How did I meet Karen Nunis Blackstone? In the late 1980s the Blues Gang had a rambling old house in Titiwangsa and Karen lived next door. She sang a couple of Janis Joplin songs and sounded just like her. I couldn’t believe the power of the voice coming out of that exquisite but frail-looking songbird. She couldn’t have been more than 16 (but in fact was 21).

Turns out I knew Karen’s dad, Larry D’ Vincent – best-known among the St Paul’s Hill painters of Malacca, and he could really sing the blues after a few drinks. He wore a beret at all times and had a brief unhappy affair with surrealism. Larry was a larger-than-life Kerouac-type character. Maybe someday someone will make a movie about Karen’s dad.

eva-lunaOr, better yet, Karen’s mum, Mabel Barr, who raised three talented kids, mostly through sheer perseverance. They could all sing and draw, and they all had a certain magic about them. Maybe they escaped from an Isabel Allende novel. I had a copy of Eva Luna that featured Karen Nunis on the cover. In any case, the gazelle-like beauty that adorned Ms. Allende’s book looked so much like Karen I photographed it and sent her a print.

Karen was always drawing and singing and writing strange little stories to amuse herself and her siblings, Virginia and Leo. One day I was introduced to an American guy named Brad Blackstone, who taught English and wrote Zen poems on the side. Karen’s svengali boyfriend is now her husband, business manager and producer. He calls himself “Daddy Peet” and tells fabulous tales of acid adventures with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Another character out of a novel, maybe a Tom Robbins novel. Daddy Peet married Karen and whisked her off to Japan where he taught at an American university. They now have two beautiful offspring: one a lovely angel child named Billie Blue (age 4) and the other a lovingly produced newborn album on their own Songbird label. Give Me Sanity it’s called, and that’s what most of the songs are about.

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‘Sisters of Mercy’ by Karen Nunis

With Daddy Peet’s encouragement, Karen kept at her drawing and painting and within a few years developed an elegant, magical surrealist style of her own which successfully fulfills artistic as well as commercial criteria. Rumor has it that Bob Dylan bought one of Karen’s paintings at an exhibition Daddy Peet arranged for her in California. Besides having had many shows in Japan, Karen has exhibited several times in Kuala Lumpur and her work has invariably been warmly received and well patronized.

Before she left for Akita, Japan, to be with Daddy Peet, Karen sent me a bunch of words she thought could be set to music. I fiddled around with the lyrics for a while and told Karen I thought they had real potential, but it would be great if she learnt to play the guitar herself and came up with tunes for her own songs. Well, she did, and now she composes together with Daddy Peet, a beat poet born out of time, who plays the blues harp at all of Karen’s gigs and on Sanity.

Karenina2The album features 12 sparsely arranged tracks favoring Karen’s strong, throaty voice and savvy, sophisticated lyrics. The album is inspired by and in memory of Leo Christopher Nunis, Karen’s kid brother, who was stabbed to death by a deranged neighborhood vagabond. At 22, good-looking Leo was happily married to a sweet English girl and was getting real funky on the guitar. He played me a few of the songs he was working on, and they sounded really promising. His passing was a senseless, tragic bereavement that stunned everyone who knew the Nunis family. Karen’s sister Virginia – who’s been singing on the hotel circuit – does a couple of backing vocals on Give Me Sanity.

karenina3In late 1999 Karen, Daddy Peet and Billie Blue were in KL for 8 weeks. I only saw them once, over a delicious meal prepared by Mabel Barr. Billie Blue charmed and amazed me with her precocity. She looks like Karen in miniature but has her daddy’s prominent forehead. None of them had gained an ounce in weight, which is always a good sign. They were all psyched up to sequester themselves at FAT Productions with ace engineer Al Tutin and cut themselves an hour’s worth of good music. Karen played me her demo cassette and asked who they should rope in on bass. Well, in this town three names immediately come to mind when you’re talking bass: Andy Peterson, David Yee, and Tommasso Cecere. They called in the crazy Italiano, who lugged his double bass down to the studio. How about drums? Three names that sprang to mind were Zahid Ahmad, Jerry Felix, and Gary Gideon. Gary wound up on the album credits. One afternoon I called Mabel’s house and a Japanese guy picked up the phone. It was Yuki Kasai, Karen’s regular guitar player in Akita, who had flown in for the recording. The next time I phoned, Mabel announced that Karen, Daddy Peet and Billie Blue had returned to Akita. The recording was more or less done but they still had some loose ends to tie up. Drat! I’d missed them by a few hours.

cdkarenIn July 2000 Karen emailed me with the exciting news: FINALLY her album was ready, liner notes, nifty packaging, press kit and all. Could she send me a CD and, er, would I review it? Well, having heard her demo I knew it was safe to say yes. Karen couldn’t possibly do anything badly anyway. There was only one problem: As someone who has watched Karen Nunis Blackstone grow up and flower as an artist and a singer, I’d find it hard to give her the full measure of praise she truly deserves. An unmitigated wholehearted rave review would sound too much like avuncular pride. But it’s a risk I’m perfectly happy to take.

Karen Nunis Blackstone is possibly the most charismatic and talented individual I know, and I’m pleased to think she regards me as an old friend. As if it weren’t enough that she can paint and sing so beautifully, she’s also been blessed with this maddeningly demure sex appeal. Mabel Barr, you have every right to play the role of Proud Mama. And, Larry – wherever you are, whatever you’re up to – you just have to be grateful your genetic potential has been so magnificently fulfilled.

23 July 2000

[First published in The Star, July or August 2000]

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GOOD GOING DESPITE SHORTCOMINGS

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shortsAntares offers some helpful feedback to those in SHORTS

Chaotic Harmony Theatre is certainly not short on energy and enthusiasm, going by the number of productions this young company has staged since its inception about a year ago. The latest was a collection of four one-act plays called Shorts (what else?), featuring two original works by David Lim and Ho Sui-Jim. The other two, both set in New York City, were by David Mamet and Violet Lucille Fletcher

It was a warm and supportive audience – largely of mums, aunts, cousins, and former college-mates – that filled The Actors Studio Box at the final performance. We’re happy and proud to see young people (average age 20) get together and create their own theater scene in KL. It’s obvious that there are some active minds with lots of creative potential behind Chaotic Harmony, and plenty of goodwill too.

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Malik Taufiq

But I almost nodded off midway through the first play, A Beautiful Mine, starring Samira Sahuri and Eddie Lau, written by David Lim, and directed by Abdul Qahar Aqilah. There were moments of lucidity when a dimensional breakthrough seemed on the verge of occurring, but in the end banality won out. The happily married couple trapped in a humdrum routine and comfortable habits never quite attain the heightened awareness necessary to escape the gravity of an artificial existence. Nor were the actors up to the task of drawing the audience into a subtle vortex of ontological unease.

It was by no means a simple play: with a little tightening and tweaking of the script, I could see more mature actors pull it off. However, the relatively green performers and first-time director lacked the experience and stage savvy to shift us out of our comfort zone so that we could experience a metaphysical initiation of sorts and escape, even if fleetingly, from The Mechanical Matrix of Meaninglessness.

The second item showcased some up-and-coming acting talent but might have gripped our imaginations more fully had the action been set locally instead of in some American city. Shareena Hatta, Pavanjeet Singh, Amil Fadhil Khan, Malik Taufiq, and Kan Yin Yee turned in acceptable performances, but the overall effect reflected too closely the theme of alienation and the impossibility of “meaningful communication in an indifferent world.”

David Lim, who wrote the first play, directed The Blue Hour: City Sketches, by David Mamet. It appears the young man is obsessed with the quest for meaning and purpose in a seemingly pointless mechanical existence, which is indeed an excellent place to begin. The vignette that had the biggest impact on me was the one in which a young woman launches an intensely personal attack on the institutional impersonality of her doctor. It was morally reminiscent of that terrific scene in the New Testament where Jesus, flail in hand, chases the merchants from the temple.

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Ho Sui-Jim

Ants, Ho Sui-Jim’s stark melodrama of family psychodynamics and the communications breakdown between two generations of Chinese was undoubtedly the most dramatically satisfying item and provided the backbone of the entire program. The script was crisp and intelligently crafted, and there was some pretty good acting from the cast of four, though a few moments of overacting crept in and detracted from an otherwise polished presentation.

Ho Sui-Jim and Timothy Chew portrayed father and son with moving intensity; William Chin was superb as the skeleton in every family’s closet; and Vishnu Murthy’s earthy schoolchum-in-need brought comic relief to the proceedings. Ants is certainly worth fine-tuning further and fleshing out a little as a feature-length TV drama. The emotional issues it addresses have universal significance and shed a great deal of light on contemporary Asia and so-called “Asian values.”

Violet Lucille Fletcher’s perky exercise in the theater of suspense, Sorry, Wrong Number, was entertainingly directed by Sanjiv Gnaneswaran. The acting was generally good, even if it never went beyond the level of a school drama. What impressed me was the effective use of stylized black-and-white backdrops against a black curtain to denote different settings – a fine example of low-budget problem-solving. Shareena Hatta did a good job as the bedridden invalid protagonist, though she had trouble convincing me she was a lonely, paranoid, middle-aged woman stuck in a New York apartment with only a telephone for company. However, the character rôles were adroitly handled by Amil Fadhil Khan, Malik Taufiq, Azmir Abdullah, Lau Wai Ping, and Alia Hilyati.

Chaotic Harmony Theater’s Shorts was an ambitious project worthy of applause, despite all its minor flaws and shortcomings. I found the overall enthusiasm and sincerity of the young company very refreshing, and the outing brought back fond memories of happier days in amateur theater, long before the days of big budgets, big egos, and offstage politics. If they could only maintain the same level of vibrant, fresh-faced ingenuousness whilst acquiring the necessary experience and technical competence to go fully pro… or is that another impossible dream?

Dance As Ritual: AWAKENING & PASSING

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Utpala ~ The Awakening

Utpala ~ The Awakening

Antares is uplifted and downright unmoved by two Sutrarasa dance events

Anita Ratnam’s Utpala: The Awakening, which world-premiered on 30 May 2003 at Sutra House as part of the 6th Sutra Festival of Contemporary Dance Theatre & Music, was a passionately performed dance concept worthy of an A+.

Fantastic fountains of perspiration moistened the Amphi-Sutra stage as the young and accomplished dancers of Arangham Dance Theatre gave their all in service to the sublime choreography – and the exquisitely assembled music (culled from various sources with live performances by Jaya Sekhar on veena and vocal; and L. Subhasri on nattuvangam). “This is like air-con to us,” Anita told the audience afterwards. “We practised in 45-degree heat!”

Anita Ratnam

Anita Ratnam

Talk about dedication, devotion and focus. Anita Ratnam did her Bharata Natyam arangetram (graduation performance) at the age of 10 under Guru Rajee, then augmented her dance studies with the Kerala traditions of Kathakali and Mohiniattam. She met Ramli Ibrahim when both were under the tutelage of celebrated choreographer Adyar K. Lakshman. After acquiring a Master’s degree in Theater and Television from the University of New Orleans, Anita Ratnam became a New York television producer, talk show host and cultural commentator, winning Emmy award nominations for popular series like Festival of India, Emerging Powers, and Indigo: The Colours of India. She returned to Chennai (Madras) and established the Arangham Trust in 1992 – a foundation to promote dance and its interaction with visual and performing arts. With over 1,000 performances in 15 countries in a dance career spanning more than 30 years, Anita Ratnam has earned recognition as “one of India’s most luminous and articulate personalities,” a veritable cultural icon.

In Utpala: The Awakening, Anita used the lotus as a symbol of transcendence and transformation. “Utpala” refers to the slender stem connecting the sacred flower to the muddy marsh from which it grows. Drawing on the rich imagery of Hindu cosmology and blending it with cosmopolitan perspectives, she intelligently integrated and reconciled classical and contemporary dance vocabularies, the sacred and the secular, making high art accessible to a broader spectrum of audiences. Anita took on the many aspects of Shakti – the Female Principle – manifesting as various goddesses. Her intensity of concentration, the economy and grace of each mudra, each movement, was an epiphany to behold. Her two fresh-faced female dancers, Aarti Bodani and R. Gayathri, were perfectly matched in beauty, discipline, and precision by two energetic male dancers, L. Narendran Kumar and M. Palani.

Taking us on a metamorphic journey from earthly incarnation and tribal consciousness to emergence into individuality – and its concomitant joys and sorrows, its confusion and pain – Utpala encompassed expressions of angelic beauty, reverence and tenderness as well as demonic brutality, cynicism and cruelty, indeed the entire gamut of human experience. Anita’s masterful use of symbols – through costumes, lighting, music and props – elevated her choreography to the level of sacred ritual. I felt greatly uplifted by this consummately conceived and performed masterpiece.

Wong Kit Yaw

Wong Kit Yaw

The following week I caught the final performance of Wong Kit Yaw’s ambitious dance epic, Passing. It began with two arduously introspective adagio movements, accompanied by the minimalist sounds of a guitar, piano, and an evocative female voice reciting a poem in Hokkien. Then a bedazzling bevy of adolescent beauties descended on us with elaborate head extensions and a butoh-like absence of facial expression, performing rituals reminiscent of Balinese temple dancers or something we might have witnessed a thousand years ago at Angkor Wat. It was like a Busby Berkeley musical set in the Forbidden City, and directed by the flamboyant Ken Russell. Or something one might encounter at an extravagant product launch in some posh hotel ballroom – minus the pervasive aroma of kemenyan (incense) which reinforced the concept of dance as sacred ritual, an approach shared by both Utpala: The Awakening and Passing.

Visually, Passing was nothing short of spectacular, though the choreography seemed to revolve around a series of photogenic and posy tableaux. The solemnity of Kit Yaw’s work was reinforced by the almost complete immobility of the dancers’ faces and their inner-directed focus – a practice central to the butoh school of dance. I found the overt asexuality of the movements an interesting contrast with the nymphal appeal of his nubile dancers (average age 16) and mostly students recruited from the Shin An and Fui Chiu Associations; Yu Hwa National-Type Secondary School, Kajang; and the Serdang Baru Association of Old Schoolmates.

Wong loves working with the young

Wong loves working with the young

Kit Yaw’s musings on the evolution of a migrant culture through time were the connecting thread holding the four episodes together, separated by a brief interval. The dancers were for the most part immensely earnest and disciplined, but the choreography made them look like androids, aloof and emotionally detached from their actions – so much so they sometimes looked unconvincing when wiggling their hips or executing a few feral movements. I found all four episodes somewhat soporific and repetitive: we kept waiting and waiting for something significant to happen, and it never did. The climactic depiction of being caught in a cultural identity bind – with the dancers getting entangled in a web of plastic construction-site tape, echoing a preceding tableau in which they are ensnared by the fronds of the floor-length tassels dangling from their courtly headpieces – impacted merely on a conceptual level, and did not actually touch us on a visceral level.

Dedicated dance teacher

Dedicated dance teacher

As an artist committed to working within his own community, Wong Kit Yaw has spent a good 12 years teaching dance to primary and secondary students from Chinese schools. His obvious sincerity and lofty ideals are indeed laudable and deserving of wholehearted applause, as are his impressive accomplishments as a cultural activist and dance motivator. However, as a dance theater experience, I found more style than substance in Passing and can only award it… well… a passing grade.

10 June 2003

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