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Omedetou Gozaimasu, Joe & Faridah!

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Rashomon Gate in Kyoto

Antares congratulates Actors Studio on their triumphant production of RASHOMON

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Faridah Merican, director

Ten days before Rashomon opened, a horrendous flash flood wiped out the Actors Studio’s Plaza Putra facilities: two theaters, the Actors Studio Academy, the Coffee Shoppe, and Joe Hasham’s chic new office. However, none of this appeared to have dampened their spirits as Faridah Merican personally welcomed the first night audience to her milestone directorial effort.

“Milestone” in that Faridah Merican’s realization of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s classic short story (to a script intelligently adapted by Joe Hasham) proved impressive on many fronts – aesthetic, dramaturgical, and the purely technical – and took Malaysian stagecraft to a new level of professionalism.

Hasham’s script adaptation was largely inspired by a close study of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film version of Rashomon.

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Bernard Goh, music director

The cinematic influence was further underscored by the use of a live orchestra playing what was pretty much a full-scale “soundtrack” to the action. The original music composed by Bernard Goh and Deborah Tee was artfully interpreted by Gideon on guitar, Yii Kah Hoe on flute and shakuhachi, Tay Chiew Lee on keyboard, and Jimmy Ch’ng on percussion. Indeed, the passion, precision, and sheer beauty of the orchestra’s performance was so outstanding they almost stole the show from the actors. I’d gladly sit through Rashomon a couple more times just to enjoy the music.

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Ramli Hassan
as Tajomoru

Working with a highly accomplished cast, Faridah was free to focus on maintaining the dramatic flow and credibility of the characterizations. Ramli Hassan was a natural choice for the charismatic rôle of the bandit Tajomoru. He brought to the character an animal magnetism that aptly personified the id – instinctual, cunning, dangerous, yet not without a certain feral innocence and candor.

Merissa Teh was absolutely convincing as the Wife. Deceptively delicate, but fully aware of her feminine power, she portrayed the adaptability and fluidity of the lifeforce when the brittle shell of social decorum and cultural conditioning is cracked. One might even surmise that the Wife manifested her own rape in order to free her wild spirit from the sterile bonds of a passionless marriage. We are indeed blessed to have Merissa Teh grace the local stage with her unassuming beauty and impeccable talent as an actress

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Ari Ratos as the Samurai

The Samurai represented the last vestiges of a feudal tradition – desperately clinging to his dignity and manhood against the unpredictable ravages of swiftly changing circumstances. To this challenging rôle, Ari Ratos brought an extraordinary integrity and humanity. Such is his skill as an actor that even as we empathized with the Samurai’s misfortune, we secretly rejoiced at his undoing, which symbolized the collapse of rigid tradition, of law and order, and the façade of respectability.

Lee Swee Keong’s lyrical movements – and the fact that he speaks exclusively in Mandarin – defines the Monk as some sort of superego, attempting to extract clarity, truth, and unity from the morass of contradictory data that constitutes the samsaric world.  A consummate dancer trained in buto, Swee Keong’s intense dedication to his craft stands him in equally good stead as an actor. His noble bearing and serene demeanor lent credence to his spiritual authority and it mattered little that one may not have understood his lines, so clearly focused was his body language.

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Lee Swee Keong as the Monk

By the play’s end it becomes clear that all the main characters – the Bandit, the Wife, the Samurai, and the Monk – are really integral aspects of the human psyche in a dynamic interplay of perspectives.  Akutagawa’s detachment from his characters gives the lie to the validity of an “objective” viewpoint. Reality is ultimately a subjective experience – and only the Monk’s spiritual grounding can encompass the drama and confusion of the sensory world and transcend it all. Of course, this is merely one way to interpret the multi-layered Rashomon – a work that undermines all notions of certainty while celebrating the infinite complexity and exquisite vulnerability of the human psyche. The Samurai and his Wife represent, perhaps, the male and female aspects of the ego.

The Woodcutter – a sort of Everyman polarized between truth and falsity – was admirably played by Terence Swampillai, who brought a tangible organicity and warmth to the character. Indeed, Swampillai’s performance was nothing short of award-winning, reminding us that there is truly no such thing as a small rôle – only great or indifferent acting.

I was surprised to find in the program no biographical reference to Caecar Chong – whose animated performance as the Medium and as an overzealous law enforcement officer was a memorable dramatic highlight. His exuberance injected high-octane energy into the proceedings and contributed significantly to the dynamic flow. As the second woodcutter, Mark Wong was unremarkable but did a sufficiently good job so as not to attract undue attention.

The special part of the Gatekeeper was inserted to serve as a sort of “Japanese chorus” cum narrator. Gan Hui Yee’s physical movements were indeed wonderful to behold, but her difficulties with English diction (coming as she does from a Chinese theater background) were a bit distracting in the opening scene. Fortunately, she eventually warmed up and began projecting her voice much better.

One suspects that the Monk’s two disciples (and lantern-bearers) were included mainly for visual effect. Nonetheless, in these auxiliary rôles, Kiea Kuan Nam and Ian Yang gave their best, especially in the choreographed sequences. I don’t usually comment on the costume design (unless it sticks out like a sore thumb), but in this instance, Cinzia Ciaramicoli’s exquisite taste and flair made the performers’ outfits an integral part of the lush visual experience.

Beautifully lit by the award-winning Mac Chan, the splendid set was conceived and constructed by a team comprising Actors Studio general manager Teoh Ming Jin, special effects expert K.L. Cheah, and the director herself. The clever use of bamboo and rear-projected foliage imagery effectively created the forest scenes; but I was most impressed by the thunderstorm effects which featured real water cascading through holes in a bamboo rafter into a hidden trough – leading a member of the audience to quip during the intermission: “Looks like Joe and Faridah are trying to drown THREE theaters!”

I left the theater elated by the overall excellence of the production and moved by the Actors Studio’s resilient spirit – Joe and Faridah’s capacity to seize yet another artistic triumph from the face of such recent tragedy.

24 June 2003

Rashomon received Boh Cameronian Arts Awards for Best Costume Design, Best Set Design, Best Original Music, and Best Lighting.

Review of Rashomon by Choy Su-Ling

 

YOU DID SWELL, NELL!

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Antares has a rollicking time with HARDY BOYZ N CRAZY GIRLZ

Nell Ng: brains, beauty & talent

I was introduced to Nell Ng’s family outside The Actors Studio Box.  Her brother Joey is reportedly a talented designer (in fact, he did the funky program) and her mum looks really feisty.  There goes my pet theory that Nell Ng was beamed down from the same planet where Mork originates (remember “Nanoo Nanoo”?)

In any case, Nell Ng is undoubtedly endowed with high-voltage brains as well as a voluptuous beauty she enjoys spoofing in most of her skits with the Instant Café Theatre.  For her directorial debut with TASYDS (The Actors Studio Young Directors Showcase, to the uninitiated), Ms Ng assiduously picked a series of off-beat one-acters by Christopher Durang, Laura Cunningham, Cathy Celesia, and that brilliant fellow, Antares (thereby ensuring her maiden effort an agreeable review, at least on kakiseni.com).  And she even wrote one herself: a takeoff on a takeoff of Romeo and Juliet, which went down very well indeed.

The modern-day theatergoer apparently prefers comedy to tragedy, possibly because there’s already enough of that in their own lives.  On opening night The Box was full of bums (half of mine was dangling precariously over the edge for the first two items, until I managed to sandwich myself safely between two women on a lower tier).  No doubt Hardy Boyz N Crazy Girlz will be packed out throughout its run.  Keeping the crowd entertained and making them laugh is a fine art which Nell Ng has got down pat.  A regular stint with the Instant Café Theatre is perhaps the best way to hone one’s comedic skills, and Nell has appeared in a lot of ICT revues over the last couple of years.

Maya Arissa Abdullah:
absolutely awesome

ICT has also been an excellent training ground for Maya Arissa Abdullah, whose phenomenal talent as an actress has blossomed with amazing swiftness since her debut appearance with the comedy troupe three years ago.  She maintained perfect focus in each of her four rôles, and was absolutely awesome (and marvellously feline) in Christopher Durang’s gothic study of domestic psychosis, Naomi in the Living Room.  Eddy Mudzaffar and Carina Ong acquitted themselves favorably as her hapless son, John, and his wife, Joanna. They looked terrific as Mr and Mrs Road Runner, though they never once went “Beep-Beep!”

In Anything For You, Cathy Celesia’s simple but well-crafted dialogue between two women who have been best friends for years, Maya’s totally credible Gaik Sim was superbly matched by Farah Alia’s earthy and subtle Kalsom.  The two of them were a class act, offsetting the unsubtle antics of a slapstick waiter played by Hadi (who even reminded me a little of Jerry Lewis).

Farah Alia: a class act

The breezy ‘Radio Gila’ intro (pre-recorded by Ghafir Akbar and Nell Ng) set the manic tone of the production, though it took a while for Eddy and Hadi to get over their initial self-consciousness in Christopher Durang’s The Hardy Boys & The Mystery of Where Babies Come From.  Zuraida Zainal Abidin made excellent use of her ample physical assets and evidently enjoyed herself as the nymphomanic Nurse Ratched; but she truly came into her own as Julita in Nell Ng’s endearing Romli & Julita.

Dicky Cheah: utterly suave

When Nell made known her decision to include Lomeo & Juriet – my Manglish “terangslation” of that famous balcony scene from Shakespeare, first dramatized by Tim Evans in Shakespeare for Dummies, with Nell playing Juriet opposite Chris Ng as Lomeo – I was looking forward to finally seeing the piece brought to life on stage.  Suffice to say, I wasn’t disappointed.  Indeed, I was delighted with the inspired dramaturgic touches she had added (for instance, the took-took-chang effects borrowed from Chinese opera). Carina Ong was exquisitely demure as Juriet Chan and Dicky Cheah utterly suave as Lomeo Ng.

I’ve seen Dicky in countless productions over the decades, usually in bit parts, and of late his acting skills have taken on a patina of professionalism hitherto unobserved.  A late bloomer, that Dicky, but a talent well worth the wait to see unfold. He was especially funny in Laura Cunningham’s hysterical Flop Cop – which had Hadi as an out-of-control playwright desperate to inflict his Deadly Dick monologue on an unsuspecting public.  As a highly trained officer of the KLAP (Kuala Lumpur Arts Police), Dicky finally realizes he can’t kill the playwright unless he first kills his characters.  I thoroughly relished this bit of inspired madness, which was enlivened by a brilliant West Side Story meets X-Files soundtrack.

The balcony scene in Manglish

Nell conceived Romli & Julita as a companion piece to Lomeo & Juriet – a savvy move, as it got maximum mileage out of the laughs generated by the Manglish version.  It also reinforced the interethnic goodwill personified by Gaik Sim and Kalsom she had injected in the earlier one-acter by Cathy Celesia.  I couldn’t resist comparing her work with that of everybody’s favorite Latok – Malaysia’s cartoonist laureate, Mohd. Nor Khalid aka Lat.

Megat Sharizal’s guitar-toting Romli was a very good match for Zuraida’s cheese-sandwich-junkie Julita.  Heaven knows we need more bridges, not more walls.  And I guess Malaysians prefer laughter, not tears. Hey, swell job, Nell!

21 June 2002

Sharpshooting from the Hip

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Bojana Novakovic & Sue Ingleton in The Female of the Species (2006)

Antares catches a hilarious earful at Sue Ingleton’s WYGIWYS

“What You Get Is What You See” is what Sue Ingleton calls her latest one-woman show, which features 80 minutes of her irreverent brand of power-packed, stand-up, bend-over, turn-inside-out-and-upside-down comedy. She might also have called it “What You Get Is What You Can Catch” – at least 10% of her high-velocity rap was lost on me, partly because of her fairly strong “Strine” accent (Ms Ingleton is from Melbourne), and partly because I was sitting too far back to read her lips.

But what I did catch provoked a great deal more than mirth. Ms Ingleton possesses a mind as sharp as her tongue is quick, and an indomitable female warrior’s spirit to boot. She covered a lot of ground at one go – sex, politics, and religion – oh, the standard curriculum of life; made merciless fun of men and their hangups (and hangdowns); beat the patriarchy into a bloody pulp, sliced it up and barbecued it over a low fire, and then served it up with a thick gravy of sublime ridicule. And she did it with such magnificent panache the men didn’t seem to mind at all (except for one elderly chap who staged an indignant walkout halfway through the show).

She started out as a creepy old crone in purdah (well, you could tell from her voice she was at least 98 years old), greeting the audience with a rubber honker in hand and cries of “Paper lama!” – all the while babbling away inanely. I suspect she would have done more with the purdah if it weren’t for the censorious presence of DBKL (Dewan Bandaraya, KL, aka City Hall, which recently cancelled an extended run of The Vagina Monologues just because some busybody in Kedah, who hadn’t even seen the show, wrote a formal complaint).

Karen Loftus, beyond blonde

Then she whipped off the mock purdah and launched into a goodhumored spoof of Karen Loftus, the blonde sexbomb standup from L.A. who recently played KL. She displayed an impressive arsenal of vernacular accents telling us about Klang Valley taxi drivers she’s known. Her voice dropped a whole octave as she took the mickey out of the entire male gender.

I particularly enjoyed Ms Ingleton’s version of the Immaculate Conception in which the Virgin Mary sends her ‘gynie’ off to heaven to collect a cup of God’s sperm so she can conceive the holy infant. We don’t often get such provocative freedom of expression in local theatre. A real breath of fresh air! Ms Ingleton comes from that venerable lineage of storytellers, bards, court jesters, and oracles who claim the right to say pretty damn much what they please and get away with it.

It takes more than mental acuity and verbal agility to pull off something like that.

Ms Ingleton is plugged right into the pulse of events. Her insights spring from the core of being human. Even as she cracks you up, she’s shedding more light on everything she rants about. It’s a bit like a ten-laughs-per-minute freeform philosophy lecture; you actually feel smarter at the end of her performance.

She summoned George Bush and Colin Powell on stage to make complete fools of themselves, and they gleefully complied. With a few basic props like spectacles, hats, and a coat (which she actually forgot to use), Ms Ingleton shapeshifted into a couple dozen characters and back with no apparent effort. She broached subjects long held taboo, like incest and polygamy; made fun of Mormons and Mammonists; waxed biological and mythological; demolished scientific materialism and several monarchies. All without a break or even a pause in between attacks.

She spoke of water and the moon and the magical properties of menstrual blood. Ancient goddess wisdom disguised as comedy. A wide-awake intelligence at work, sparking off fresh perceptions, jolting the audience out of its complacency, pushing it to the far boundaries of its comfort zone.

I’ve only come across one other purveyor of offbeat comedy from Down Under who’s anywhere near Sue Ingleton in terms of originality and impact: an amazing fellow named Tim Scally (also from Melbourne) whose “man with a flaming suitcase on his head” and “bucket of death” routines I shall never forget. Scally’s approach, however, is extremely physical and visceral, while Ingleton’s humor is mostly cerebral and verbal. Both, I believe, have at different times worked with Circus Oz.

A Porsche in your living room…

She ended her show with a little sermon on the laws of manifestation: “Be careful when you make a wish. You have to get the details just right. This friend of mine badly wanted a red Porsche, and she very nearly got herself killed when one came crashing right through her bedroom wall. She forgot to visualize the pleasure of owning a red Porsche, and driving it around. Now imagine some chap wishing he had a big fat prick… and suddenly finding Samy Vellu in his lap!”

Sue Ingleton’s sizzling solo performance – presented by the Instant Café Theatre and packed out the night I caught it – was her way of saying “cheerio for now” after several productive weeks in KL conducting workshops and directing Deborah Michael in Woman on the Couch. We’re indeed fortunate that this masterful dramaturge and totally magic mama seems to really enjoy her stints here. Her wealth of experience, boundless vitality, and enormous talent have inspired a great many local theater practitioners.

1 March 2002

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