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AN UTTERLY HYSTERICAL BLAST!

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The latest incarnation of ATOMIC JAYA just concluded
a successful run in Singapore

Antares is radioactivated yet again by Huzir Sulaiman’s masterpiece, ATOMIC JAYA

Since March 1998 when Atomic Jaya first opened at the original Actors Studio Theatre (now reclaimed by the primordial ooze), too many things have gone badly for the world. So when something bucks the global trend of failure, destruction and disaster – when something goes very well indeed – it’s a call for huge celebration and rejoicing.

A sure sign that something is going very well indeed is when you see nothing but cheerful faces leaving their seats at intermission, and there are far more grins than frowns at the end of the show.

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Prodigious playwright/director/actor
Huzir Sulaiman

Okay, there were THREE members of the audience who made a major show of not enjoying one of the finest satires I’ve seen staged anywhere. Someone whispered that they were from City Hall, there to monitor the performance for offensive, subversive, or pornographic content. After the recent fiasco over its ill-advised attempt to ban the Instant Café Theatre from the city of KL (thanks, Mr Mayor, for speaking out on behalf of good sense and reversing the ban; I insert a round of applause for that silver lining on an inquisitorial dark cloud), it’s understandable that City Hall would be feeling defensive.

Keeping sewers clean, streets swept, and petty traders on their toes isn’t quite as glamorous or exciting as intimidating the fancy-talking faggoty arty-farty fringe. However, what one person labels “offensive” another calls “hilariously honest.” You have to really hate how you look to object so strenuously to your own reflection. Art’s primary function is to reflect our lives. Everyone ought to know that. Certain artistic approaches may work more like distorting mirrors but being able to laugh at your own comical aspects means your ego is healthy and comfortable with itself.

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Claire Wong as Mary Yuen,
Huzir Sulaiman as General Zulkifli

All true art is subversive, reclaiming for the individual the power the State constantly attempts to steal. Everyone knows that if art is subservient rather than subversive, most likely it’s mere corporate propaganda. And in response to the question of what constitutes “pornography,” all I can say is: “Honi soit qui mal y pense.” Evil to whomsoever thinks evil.

Enough! We won’t allow City Hall to steal the show, no matter how badly it wants in on the limelight. I want this to pass as a review, not just a rave. So how did I like Atomic Jaya’s new incarnation?

Enormously! The original version was more or less a 14-character monodrama: a litmus test of any actor’s ability, agility and nerve, sort of like tightrope-crossing Niagara Falls on a unicycle. This Checkpoint Theatre production features Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman on a breezy tandem ride through Bolehland – with crisp digital images meticulously crafted by director Casey Lim and flashed on a paper screen as a kinetic backdrop (the state-of-the-art, high-resolution Panasonic projector produced startlingly clear images). It also has Fahmi Fadzil playing a double rôle as a canteen makcik and patriotic singer.

While the original version was supercharged with manic intensity and a stark, dark surrealism, this new production heightens and broadens the comedy, thus increasing its entertainment value without detracting from the script’s satirical incisiveness. And in any case it’s doubly pleasurable to watch two consummate performers tackle the main characters instead of one.

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What gives Atomic Jaya a solid core of substance beyond the guffaws, sniggers and belly laughs is the play’s underlying seriousness as anthropological commentary. The fact that it opened in Kuala Lumpur on August 6th – on the 58th anniversary of Hiroshima, when 80,000 human lives were destroyed by an atomic bomb dropped by the United States Air Force, followed by another over Nagasaki three days later which decimated horrific thousands more – was a grim reminder to us all that we’re still living under a nuclear sword of Damocles (not “umbrella” as some may pretend).

The mind-boggling insanity of squandering trillions on an ongoing program of Mutual Assured Destruction – instead of redirecting every available resource towards the alleviation of suffering caused by simple lack – has its roots in the malignant human ego when it takes on exaggerated nationalistic proportions. Can the laser surgery of sharp-tongued humor excise the tumor of ruinous pride and megalomaniacal ambition?

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Explosive performance

Perhaps not, but weapons-grade satire produces a chain reaction of transcendental consciousness among those it infects with despair-banishing mirth. And even the deadliest strain of militant pomposity cannot withstand well-aimed ridicule, though it will try its damnedest to outlaw and suppress it.

On the strength of the three or four plays (and one short film, That Historical Feeling by the prolific Huzir Sulaiman) in which I’ve seen Claire Wong act, I’d place her amongst the top ranks in both hemispheres. The precision, sensitivity and vitality she infuses into each rôle makes her – like Jo Kukathas, who created the original characterizations – an extraordinary shapeshifter.

Who can forget her Dr Saiful from UKM (“Oh, you are discussing philosophy. Very interesting. For example, ‘Men are from Besut, Women are from Dungun.’ I also like philosophy.”)? Or her thumb-twiddling malapropic minister (“Why should we import the highly enriched Iranian? We already buy the Persian carpet and the Persian cat from the Iranian so they become highly enriched at our expense.”)?

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Claire Wong, consummate shapeshifter

In two seconds flat she visibly gained 200 pounds as former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “We have the might, and we have the right, and we will not hesitate to fight for the right to our might, and our might alone. Ask not what your country can do for you; rather, ask what our country can do to your country.”

But as nuclear physicist Dr Mary Yuen, Claire Wong was 100% the real McCoy. No problem passing her off as a Chinese Catholic girl from Ipoh who just happened to idolize Lord Rutherford, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and the entire subatomic pantheon.

Huzir Sulaiman was in top comic form as General Zulkifli (with his classic Napoleon Complex and unforgettable lines like, “I want to get to the bottom of this matter. Until the bottom is reached, the top cannot be happy.”); and the excitable Delhi Polytechnic graduate, Dr Ramachandran (“If you vant to take yumbrage, make sure this taking of yumbrage is correct and prahper. Yumbrage simply cannot be taken at vhim or vhimsy. You vill vaste the yumbrage.”)

He had a spot of trouble getting an exact fix on the extremely sleazy Mr Bala, and his Otto (the low-grade European) could have been further fine-tuned; but he outdid himself as a whole stream of newsreaders from the BBC, CNN and RTM – and as a police officer addressing a group of protestors (all 7 of them) with a loudhailer: “This is an illegal assembly. I order you to disperse. This is your first warning. Tangkap mereka semua.” An immortal characterization in only four lines.

Noraini, the canteen operator at Syarikat Perniagaan Atomic Jaya Sdn Bhd, was played in drag by Fahmi Fadzil who turned in a laudably restrained performance. Fahmi also did a superb job as a nattily besongkoked patriotic song-rendering robot, as instant palm trees waved in the electronically generated background.

ImageDirector Casey Lim’s wizardry with digital design is matched by a fine intuition for injecting just the right symbolism with almost subliminal subtlety. The choice of a solitary hibiscus flower (Malaysia’s national emblem) as central motif was an inspired one. Closeups of the stamen evoked understated phallic imagery and mimicked the mushroom cloud that would later dominate the entire backdrop with chilling effect. From nationalistic egocentricity to testosteronal displays of potency – just by changing camera angles on a hibiscus flower – pretty neat!

When all the elements of a play work together so efficiently (and with such apparent effortlessness) to produce an aesthetically satisfying synergetic gestalt, we are reminded that Creation is infinitely wise and perpetually self-perfecting. So what if the country or even the whole goddamn planet is temporarily in the hands of Sharkey and his perception-challenged henchmen?  The vision quest only makes sense and carries any value if it bears the ring of truth – and Huzir Sulaiman’s Atomic Jaya rings true for me. Go see it if you haven’t. And even if you have, go see it again!

8 August 2003 

ATOMIC JAYA restaged by students of Sunway College

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8 Brilliant Plays in 4 Tumultuous Years

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ImageHuzir Sulaiman must be sick and tired of being called precocious, an enfant terrible, a veritable prodigy. But that’s only because people believe him when he says he was born in 1973.

After reading his recently published Eight Plays, I’m convinced that Huzir must be at least several years my senior and ready to withdraw his EPF money. Either that or he’s suffering from progeria – a wasting disease that grossly accelerates the aging process – because I distinctly recall acting with Huzir Sulaiman in a 1981 production called Struggles of the Naga Tribe when he claimed to be only seven. Well, even then, he seemed rather precocious – and a whole lot more approachable than the image of the enigmatic and disdainful savant he sports today.

But I’ll say this: few people I know deserve to be called “creative genius” as much as Huzir Sulaiman does, regardless of mental age or attitude towards his audiences.  I have no idea what his formative years were like. I know his parents are incredibly smart (his dad was one-time president of the Bar Council, and featured prominently as a senior member of Anwar Ibrahim’s defence team) – but what books did he read, was he good at sports, did he like girls? I’m told he was a top student at Princeton, though I haven’t a clue what his major was. All I know is that Huzir returned to KL in the mid-1990s looking like a tweedy middle-aged Ivy League professor.

But, boy, could he act! He was superb in every rôle he played, even when cast as a Malaysian “Mr Bean” in a silly TV sitcom series. Then he tried his hand at directing – and the results were outstanding. Next thing I knew, this prodigious enfant terrible had churned out a slew of plays – all of them excellent, damn him!

And now Silverfishbooks have published eight of them in an affordable paperback edition. Unfortunately the laminated covers curl as soon as you begin to read. Well, one either lives with this or holds out for a hardcover edition. And this collection undoubtedly deserves a permanent place in any library. Not everyone thinks plays are good reading but in this case I found the text extremely engaging as literature, and the exercise actually forced me to change my mind about some Huzir productions I’d seen (but more about that later).

It’s true Huzir’s first play, a one-man show called Lazy Hazy Crazy, was pretty much an Instant Café Theatre revue – but without the rest of the famous cast, of which he had been a member for a season or two. It was nonetheless hilarious and wackily inspired, and established his Straits Theatre Company as a cutting edge force. The playwright decided to omit this early effort from the collection – either because he prefers the numeral 8 to 9, or perhaps he felt it didn’t quite match the elegance and sophistication of his subsequent works.

A strategic move: because his second play, Atomic Jaya, was simply explosive. No, it didn’t bomb. On the contrary, it was arguably the most scathing, timely, and intelligent satire ever seen in these parts. The first version had the incredible Jo Kukathas playing all 14 parts. It was revised and restaged three years later in Singapore with the phenomenal Claire Wong as the entire cast.

Who can resist quoting a brief exchange between Dr Mary Yuen (nuclear physicist) and General Zulkifli (who commissions her to build the first Malaysian atom bomb)?

General Zulkifli welcomes Dr Mary Yuen to the research laboratory of Syarikat Perniagaan Atomic Jaya Sdn. Bhd.

YUEN:  Yes, I was confused about the sign. You mean this is a private company?

GENERAL:  It’s not my decision. Everything they must privatize now. But it’s okay. The directors of the company include seven generals and one Prime Minister’s son. You must have Prime Minister’s son. Keep them busy. Otherwise if unemployed they will start the NGO.

Exquisite precision. Atomic Jaya had the same electrifying intensity as Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr Strangelove or Terry Gilliam’s hyperrealistic Brazil. It was delightful to be able to read the script and be mesmerized all over again by the sparkling wit and sheer inventiveness of this brilliantly mad exposé of the psychopathology of Bolehland.

The Smell of Language – an involuted and priapic experiment in verbal synesthesia (no doubt inspired by the fractal semantic constructs of Jorge Luis Borges) struck me as one huge wank when I saw Huzir perform it – albeit a highly erudite one with serious political undertones. But as a printed text, it holds enormous appeal for anyone who takes pleasure in cunning linguistics and the ruthlessness of intellectual virtuosity.

It’s easy to see why Hip-Hopera – Huzir’s shot at writing and directing a feel-good rap musical – proved such a box-office hit, playing to packed houses for a full month. The characters are breezy and instantly likeable, the tunes lively, funky (and forgettable), but the lyrics… the lyrics are something else, check this out:

I’m a soap-box preacher, a lyrical teacher
And if you come into my theatre there’s an usher who will seat ya
And if you come into my parlour I’m sure I’m pleased to meet ya
And if you come into my bed you can see the main feature
Got a lot of philosophy that just might reach ya
Cause I dig Heidegger and Friedrich Nietszche
I need ya, I’ll feed ya, I’m never going to cheat ya
But if you lie like the President I am going to impeach ya

Genuinely capable and inventive individuals like Huzir Sulaiman are the only cure for Terminal Malaysiabolehitis. Their creative contributions rescue us from chronic cultural embarrassment or, worse, premature self-congratulations.

I regret missing Zahim Albakri’s performance of Notes on Life & Love & Painting, which received critical accolades. Reading it was truly an aesthetic experience and further reinforced my admiration for the way Huzir Sulaiman has integrated his Ivy League education with an intrinsically Malaysian sensibility. His diatribe on the myth of artistic originality is worth framing as a poster and I feel compelled to quote a portion of it, truncated for brevity:

We have rubber trees because rubber trees were brought here from Brazil by the British. Chilli is not indigenous. Chilli was imported from South America 500 years ago. What comes from Malaysia? We buy our rice from Thailand now and our sarongs from Indonesia. Was the novel invented in Malaysia? No. Did we invent films and television? Is painting indigenous to Malaysia? No. Is abstract art an outgrowth of weaving mengkuang? Like fuck it is. So why should anybody expect me to be original? It angers me when after hundreds of years of importing aspects of other people’s culture some politician in a 4,000-ringgit Italian suit complains about Western values and such-and-such a thing is not from our culture. Our culture is everybody else’s culture. We’ve never had our own. Deal with it and grow up. Would you like some coffee? No? It’s Colombian.

He even succeeds in ending the monologue on a positive, life-affirming note. Awesome! It’s one of those wonderfully self-contained masterpieces one wishes one had written.

The neo-existentialist mood of Election Day annoyed and depressed me when I caught the play, staged as it was nine days after a bitterly disappointing election that saw business-as-usual triumph over ethical and environmental considerations. But in the ensuing years, I have come to accept that Huzir was right – the male ego’s desire to screw something terribly sexy, like an exotic woman or an entire country, transcends belief systems and underlies all acts of betrayal. However, I’m still unhappy with the way Huzir disposes of two of his characters, getting them hauled off by the cops for assaulting a police officer. Surely he could have found some way to invoke the dreaded ISA?

Those Four Sisters Fernandez represents the playwright’s exploration of his own Malayalee roots. There are many scintillating moments and memorable lines, yet the play leaves a great deal unresolved – but I suppose life’s a lot like that. As an attempt to document the collective psyche of a fascinating subculture and how it responds to change, the play carries considerable value. Nonetheless, it isn’t my favorite in the collection.

The last two plays – Occupation and Whatever That Is – have only ever been staged in Singapore. The former was commissioned by the 2002 Singapore Arts Festival while the latter was presented as part of an evening of 10-minute plays entitled Squeeze and SqueezabilityOccupation is a masterful and disciplined exploration of internal puns and rhymes, and the nebulous nature of historical reconstruction. I found it a tad clinical yet strangely heartwarming. What impressed me most was Huzir’s knack of capturing the inflections of his characters’ speech in print.

Huzir Sulaiman of Studio Wong Huzir

If one must draw comparisons, it’s Salman Rushdie who comes to mind: I regard Rushdie as one of the most engaging contemporary writers in English, a happy and unexpected by-product of the late great British Empire, whose “native” soul fuses ecstatically with his “colonized” mind. Well, we don’t want a fatwa on Huzir’s head – but it definitely does me proud to claim dat young fler as an old friend (no pun intended). And to think he used to call me “Uncle.” This is ridiculously mature work for someone who just turned 29.

Whatever That Is reads like a miniature gem in the chic and cerebral style of Yasmina Reza (whose award-winning play, Art, was staged by Huzir’s Straits Theatre Company in June 2001). Huzir certainly knows how to play with pregnant pauses, making silence speak louder than his wonderfully crafted words.

An extremely hearty slap on the back to Silverfishbooks for making Huzir Sulaiman’s Eight Plays available in print. What an excellent public service. May it reach far and wide and redeem our pygmified intellectual self-esteem. I hope we don’t lose one of our finest creative minds to a neighboring country for lack of appreciation.

[First published on kakiseni.com, December 2002. A year after this review, Huzir Sulaiman decided to settle in Singapore, where he married Claire Wong, another former Malaysian and an absolutely superb actress.]

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