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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

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BATTLING INSANITY WITH INANITY

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A riot broke out in Paris after the first word was uttered…

Antares celebrates the advent of pataphysical theater in Kuala Lumpur 

Alfred Jarry (1873~1907)

When Alfred Jarry’s “pataphysical” play, Ubu Roi, opened in Paris in 1896, a riot broke out after the first word was uttered – or so the legend goes. In any case, the show was forced to close on the second night because even more pandemonium ensued.

The only thing that broke out at the end of the Malaysian premiere of Ubu Roi was riotous applause. It would appear that 106 years down the line, KL theatergoers have been well primed by recent history for the scatological humor and pungent, surrealistic satire that informs Jarry’s pioneering effort in a style of theater generally labeled “Absurdist.” (In any event, after Shahnon Ahmad’s excremental novel, no Malaysian is likely to get overly agitated at the mention of pschitt.)

Alfred Jarry has been hailed as the progenitor of an artistic tradition of inspired inanity that has spawned the illustrious likes of Ionesco, Beckett, Brecht, the Dadaists, the Surrealists, Charles Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, the Goons, Harold Pinter, The Bonzo Dog Trouser Experience, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Frank Zappa, Richard Lester, and Douglas Adams.

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“Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi” by Joan Miró

Jarry himself lived a brief, intense and utterly eccentric existence, after blowing his inheritance on absinthe, ether and opium. At the tender age of 34 he was on his deathbed, surrounded by a small group of friends and admirers. The philosopher-poet’s not-so-famous last words, according to an apocryphal account, were: “I need a toothpick.” This elegantly sums up Jarry’s pataphysical credo.

ImageBut what, exactly, is pataphysics? Jarry himself defined it as “the science of imaginary solutions” – which only serves to further obfuscate. However, it’s interesting to learn that the Ubu character had its origins in a schoolboy skit written by the 15-year-old Jarry to lampoon a particularly pompous and obnoxious pedagogue.

Derision and ridicule have traditionally been the weapons of a non-violent, oppressed intelligentsia against a cruel and stupid but privileged mediocracy.  Those with sufficient insight to see through the wool pulled over our eyes by the puppet-masters and their spin-doctors invariably end up drinking hemlock like Socrates – or else they “lose their minds” like Nietzsche, Nijinsky, and Van Gogh. Alfred Jarry, whose pataphysical manifesto was a valiant attempt to laugh in the face of the false gods, Mammon and Moloch (read money and military might), perhaps succeeded in doing both.

In these apocalyptic times, pataphysics is one way we can cope with our own feelings of helplessness before the sheer imbecility, the intransigence, and the insatiable greed of our Ubuesque “leaders” and the insanity of their ego ambitions.

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Paul Loosley loses his stage directorial virginity

Ubu Roi was certainly a brilliant way for first-time stage director Paul Loosley to make a grand entrance on the local scene. As an award-winning commercial film director and creative consultant, Loosley brought with him a rich lode of nifty ideas, craftily implemented by a team of advertising professionals like costume designer Loh and production designer Lee Chuen Fai (with conceptual inputs from Loosley’s son Alexander, who majors in drama and stage design).

The director chose to stick pretty close to the text – inserting a bit of local color by throwing in some Cantonese and Malay dialogue. It would certainly have been more topical to rename Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu – Pak Ubi and Mak Ubi. King Wenceslas could have been rendered Raja Wheregotclass; Prince Boggerlas, Tunku Buggerlu; and Captain McNure, Kapitan Tahi. But, then, that might have brought it way too close to home. In any case, Loosley opted for a cartoon buffoon effect, emphasizing the more puerile aspects of Jarry’s work rather than his surreal sociopolitical commentary, thereby leaving the interpretation open to the audience and protecting the production from official censure.

The lavatory theme of the set was obviously inspired by the explosive first word of the play, Ubu’s favorite expletive: Pschitt! (A mime version of Ubu Roi directed by Milan Sladek in Köln back in the early 1990s opted for gigantic genitalia attached to Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu’s flesh-colored body stockings. Ubu’s throne was shaped like an enormous vulva, and the operatic “soundtrack” was created live by an a capella ensemble. Limitless are the ways in which to present Ubu, a play that resolutely refuses to take itself seriously, even though the subject matter is dead serious – based as it is on Shakespeare’s gothic tale of ambition, deceit, treachery and hubris, that so-called “Scottish play,” but set in Poland.)

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Ari Ratos as Pa Ubu

The plum rôle of Ubu went to Ari Ratos, who did a thoroughly magnificent job. Jerrica Lai made a deliciously lewd and lascivious Ma Ubu; hers was a broad, uninhibited, and extremely physical interpretation that did not entirely ring true (she came across more as Cat Woman than another variant of the Lady Macbeth archetype), though her performance was admirable and brave. As I emerged from the Actors Studio Theatre at Plaza Putra, artistic director Joe Hasham and executive producer Faridah Merican, who were on hand to greet everyone, transformed momentarily into Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu – and I was reminded that Ubu is really all of US.

Bernie Chan was a delightful scream as Rosemund (ah, she’s such a joy to watch on stage) and Na’a Murad turned in a turdlike Captain McNure (but such is his easygoing charm, nothing he does is ever shitty). Gavin Yap was immensely lively as Prince Boggerlas and had no trouble winning over the audience, even disguised as a chicken. Dennis Leong was electrifying as Heads, and wonderfully weird at every turn. His counterpart, Tails, was played by Gan Hui Yee for the most part in impassioned and rapid-fire Cantonese.

As Gyron, Sham Sunder Binwani had enormous impact but his most impressive feat was portraying a whole procession of aristocrats despatched “down the hatch” by the monstrously tyrannical Ubu Roi. Mark Stephan Felix’s Wenceslas was rather camp and visually striking, though I felt the characterization wasn’t fully explored.

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Deborah Strang & Alan Blumenthal in a 2006 production of Ubu Roi

Indeed, there were many elements in the production that could have been played to the max – especially in view of the mounting geopolitical madness – but were instead merely milked for sensational or comic effect.  However, seeing as how it was director Loosley’s maiden effort, much can be forgiven. Suffice for us to rejoice at and welcome the fresh inflow of new energy, resources and talent which promises more theatrical thrills further up the road.

Ever since I discovered Alfred Jarry and his Ubu plays in the early 1970s, I’ve been looking forward to seeing the advent of the pataphysical era in KL. Thirty years is a long wait, but it was well worth it.

27 October 2002

Not So Sweet But Really Quite Something

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Sweet Nothing: Gavin Yap debuts as a playwright

Gavin Yap may well be the best thing that’s happened to Malaysian theater since The Actors Studio set up shop. And to prove it isn’t on account of his devastating good looks alone, the 24-year-old thespian has turned playwright with Sweet Nothing – a high-powered exercise in neo-existentialism directed by that old master of in-your-face theatre, Joe Hasham (whose early directorial efforts, Norm and Ahmed and The Indian Wants The Bronx, remain vividly imprinted in theatergoers’ memories).

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Angelic hitmen Jeremiah (Gavin Yap) & Elijah (Edwin Sumun)

Picture Gavin Yap at 17 and the enormous impact that Quentin Tarantino’s stylish classic, Pulp Fiction, must have had on him.  In his first outing as playwright, Yap appears to have extracted the two hitmen (urbanely portrayed by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) from the 1994 movie and made them into his own characters, Jeremiah and Elijah (note the biblical monikers).

Yap’s post-modern prophets of nihilism are given crisp, zen-like lines reminiscent of the stark dialogue in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist plays. Their masturbatory play with guns and the homosexual undertone of their quirky relationship reflect an adolescent fascination with death and the utter meaninglessness of existence. But the dialogue is definitely well-crafted and reveals a good ear for punchy exchanges.

Kiss of death

Jeremiah and Elijah are each allowed a monologue explaining why they are the way they are. Both emerged from a childhood environment where violence ruled in place of love (censors who delight in snipping sex scenes while allowing all manner of brutal and violent behavior, please take note, you may unintentionally be helping to create future generations of Jeremiahs and Elijahs).

Elijah justifies his cold-blooded murder of the waitress Gabriella (fetchingly played by Caroline Moses) with: “Look at this place. It’s a shithouse. You call this a life? I looked in that girl’s eyes. She wasn’t happy. She didn’t have anything worth living for.”

Gabriella (Caroline Moses) gets snuffed by
the cold-blooded Elijah

This is the fin-de-siècle theology of the Apocalypse. The Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah and Elijah, have reincarnated as Angels of Death. And God is the Great Void, the Ultimate Nothingness, Shiva the Destroyer. Tough thinking and tough talk from a 24-year-old. But a valid worldview nonetheless, considering the state of human affairs on planet Earth.

When one first sets out to write anything, be it a poem, novel, or a play, it’s almost inevitable that one will be strongly influenced by one’s literary heroes. Therefore, the fact that Gavin’s playwriting debut is plainly derivative is in no way a criticism of his effort. Indeed, he has succeeded in crafting a suspenseful one-hour drama which keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. Joe Hasham is expert at creating dramatic tension between his actors and this worked sensationally with the material to generate an atmosphere of stark anxiety and raw primal passions.

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Edwin Sumun: deadly android

Edwin Sumun’s Elijah is measured, sculpturesque, deadly as a malfunctioning android. As Jeremiah, Gavin Yap looked and spoke so much like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction I had to keep reminding myself I was in The Actors Studio Box watching a live play, not a rerun of Tarantino’s masterpiece. Now it’s not at all a bad thing to look and sound like John Travolta. Few guys can lay claim to such animal magnetism, and such genuine talent, not to mention the photogenic poster-boy features and the smoldering eyes. One of these days, everyone will be wanting to look and sound like Gavin Yap.

However, the most remarkable performance of all was that of Ari Ratos as the unfortunate and nameless cook. He didn’t have much to say. All he had to do was babble mindlessly in Hindi (the playwright had originally ordered Italian but that would have been way too Hollywood), and prepare to die at the hands of these neo-existentialist angels of death. Yet Ratos succeeded in encapsulating our collective fear of death (and our ultimate helplessness in the face of it) in one totally intense performance.

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Ari Ratos as the cook

As the tears of terror rolled down his anguished face, he seemed to be asking the one question that must pop into every hapless victim’s mind: “WHY?”  The late Leslie Dawson (who played a very similar role in his final play, The Indian Wants The Bronx by Israel Horovitz, would have bought Ari Ratos a stiff drink afterwards, I’m sure).

I applaud The Actors Studio’s Malaysian Playwright Series for giving new writing talent the opportunity to be staged, and take my hat off to Gavin Yap for having the guts to take up the challenge. Sweet Nothing may not have been such a “sweet” experience but it was certainly quite something. Bravo, Gavin!

6 August 2002 (pix by Antares)

 

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