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NOT EXACTLY WILDE BUT WACKY ENOUGH

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Oscar-Wilde-author

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

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Fertile Ground

Allan Perera & Indi Nadarajah: a hilarious Heckle & Jeckle duo

Antares undergoes MenAPause 

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Heckle & Jeckle, animated magpies
from the 1950s

Allan Perera and Indi Nadarajah discovered each other through the legendary Instant Café Theatre, of which both were early members.  The mirth-provoking chemistry between them is reminiscent of classic comedy double acts like Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Belushi and Akroyd, Cheech and Chong.  What’s more, both happen to also be accomplished musicians and songsmiths.

As Loga and Singham, a pair of loquacious Indian pub pundits, they were an absolute knockout.  The success of their double piss-take on all things Indian (and Malaysian) led to the formation of Comedy Court.  And now Perera and Nadarajah have done it again, in drag, as Mertle and Thavi.

Their latest venture, MenAPause opened to packed houses at the Actors Studio Theatre, Bangsar, on July 26 and ends its run on August 4.  Looks like they’ve hit the sitcom jackpot once again – and the Malaysian funnybone – with their comic study in banality and bathos.  My companion, who comes from an Eurasian-Indian household, said all the jokes cut painfully and hysterically close to the bone.  For a very large proportion of the audience, MenAPause must have been something of a cathartic experience.

Indi Nadarajah as Thavi Kanagasabai & Allan Perera as Mertle Rodrigo

Allan Perera’s “Mertle Rodrigo” is a bossy, sharp-tongued middle-aged Eurasian housewife with two teenaged kids, John-boy (capably played by the never-aging Patrick Stevens) and Shirley-girl (somewhat self-consciously portrayed by Valerie Dass).  Indi Nadarajah plays “Thavi Kanagasabai” – Mertle’s terribly Tamil childhood friend – with nonchalant ease and tremendous gusto.

The fast and furious flow of colloquial wit kept everyone in stitches.  Thavi’s revelation that one of the Selvadurai kids was the illegitimate product of Mr Selvadurai’s brief affair with a Malay telephone operator elicits this barbed response from Mertle: “Well, one thing you can say about Indians, they’re very fertile.”

A kitchen scene where Thavi waxes lyrical on the occult virtues of rasam (a spicy Tamil soup) leads to a full-blown eulogy on the culinary creativity of the sub-continent: “India is the source of all foods – so what if people are starving there – all the food comes from India.”

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Uncrowned Kings of Comedy Court

There are even a handful of songs thrown in (no Indian production is complete without a few song and dance numbers).  Perera and Nadarajah are no Lerner and Loewe but the musical moments successfully kept up the play’s momentum – although it would be more accurate to describe MenAPause as an extended skit rather than a play.  A large proportion of the humor seemed purely gratuitous – thrown in just for laughs – but most of it was quite irresistible, even silly bits like the delivery boy’s misreading of Mertle’s name as “Mentle Rodrigo.”

John-boy examines the package from Aunt Agnes and sees a card inscribed: “Happy Menopause!”  He asks his mother what the word means and Mertle’s reply is worth quoting: “Well, when a woman reaches a certain age, she gets more and more beautiful… until the very sight of her is enough to make men, er… pause.”

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They deserve their own TV series

As to be expected the contents of the package from Aunt Agnes are rather naughty – the main item being a battery-operated dildo which Thavi innocently uses to stir her rasam.  The stage is set for the arrival of Sister Margaret (winningly portrayed by Gracie Low)… and Mertle’s gossipy relatives from Penang.  But, then, in Mertle and Thavi’s world, all relatives ever do is gossip.

2 August 2001

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