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Burrrp… Simply Sedap!

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Antares pigs out over Jit Murad’s SPILT GRAVY ON RICE

Good home cooking imparts a marvelous sense of well-being. Who was it who defined patriotism as a fond memory of all the wonderful things we tasted in our childhood?Well, that makes Jit Murad a true patriot and an even truer playwright. Simply because he has a knack of serving up some timely home truths without ever sounding pedantic or preachy, and his brilliant agility with words makes a long story seem short and sweet. Through the rich and spicy stew of human melodrama generated by just one genetic hodgepodge of a family, Jit brings the story of modern Malaysia up to date with sagely wit and deep compassion.

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Dato’ Rahim Razali as Bapak

His unapologetically polygamous Bapak – impressively portrayed by the highly durable Dato’ Rahim Razali – redeems the image of the patriarch as progenitor, our father on earth. Which is no easy feat considering the boorish, bullying shadow side of the Bapak figure that dominates our political history. In the gentlest possible voice, the playwright derides a wawasan without otak – a national vision with little intelligence or soul.  His allusion to the abysmal events of May 13, 1969 – which have for decades marred the national psyche and perpetrated the unhappy ethos of aggressive denial (and the compulsive dishonesty it breeds) – was handled with incredible grace and tenderness. At a time when the nation is confronted with the imminent departure of an overbearing and all-powerful Bapak, the play resonates on more levels than can be grasped with one viewing. And yet, Jit’s astute observations transcend the pettiness of politics and attain the sublime heights of a humane social philosophy that heals old wounds and reconciles apparent contradictions.

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Sean Ghazi as Husni

Bapak’s five children (actually six, all from different mothers) represent a cross-section of the educated class: Zakaria is a rake (“You mean he’s the black sheep of the family?” “No, more like the black goat!”) whose rebellion against his father’s value system makes him a cynical opportunist (which he blames on his piratic ancestry); Kalsom is a controversial (read attention-craving) dramaturge and poet totally engrossed with her own artistic ambitions; Darwis, a frustrated academic turned literary critic and family biographer; Husni, a successful architect and closet gay; and Zaiton, a typical aspiring Toh Puan ensnared in the comfortable complacency of the haute bourgeoisie.  Bapak has a few more tricks up his sleeve, but it’s not for me to reveal them here.

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Bernice Chauly as Kalsom

While the casting was astute, the performances were slightly uneven. Reza Zainal Abidin and Sean Ghazi were absolutely spot on as Darwis and Husni. Elaine Pedley was an utter delight as the winsome Willow Gomez (“an over-enthusiastic interpretative dancer”) who also stood in as the memory of all the women in Bapak’s life. Benjy and Eijat were excellent as Azri and Michelle (Husni’s gay lover and Zakaria’s transvestite friend), and Ahmad Ramzani Ramli wholly credible as Kalsom’s faithful assistant (and worshiper).

Soefira Jaafar’s affected interpretation of Zaiton was not altogether convincing, but we may attribute that to her relative inexperience as an actor. Bernie Chan, making her acting debut, was elegantly entertaining as Hortense Chia, Zaiton’s confidante and childhood friend. Bernice Chauly looked really smashing as Kalsom and so did Charon Mokhzani as Zakaria – but their long absence from the boards made them a wee bit self-conscious in the early scenes, although both evidently possess thespian skills aplenty. One hopes their return to the limelight will stir up the adrenaline sufficiently for them to get hooked all over again.

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Raja Maliq, set designer

It’s an exciting venture indeed to be part of the creation of an original play and the entire cast and crew deserve a mighty round of applause for the wonderful energy they invested in bringing Jit Murad’s fourth (and most mature) full-length play to life. Mac Chan’s lighting was precise and efficient; and Raja Maliq’s set design, which resembled a giant closet, rather ingenious, though the thin plywood construction seemed somewhat wobbly. The well crafted sound by Wong Pek Fui was, on the night I caught the performance, miscued a couple of times by an inexperienced operator – but that was perhaps the only amateurish touch in an otherwise commendable first staging of a complex dramatic work. The material is so engagingly textured that it can be interpreted in endless ways, and it’s almost certain that Spilt Gravy On Rice will see many more incarnations in years to come and in places yet undreamed of.

Director Zahim Albakri has molded, with loving attention and intuitive aplomb, Jit Murad’s delectable text into a nourishing, soul-satisfying theatrical experience.  Rise, Sir Jit and Sir Zahim, and receive your well-earned accolades and hugs.

Oh, by the way, look out for a couple of unnamed characters (Men In White) whose surprise cameo appearance alone is worth risking an evening out in the permanent haze of KL.

2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Method to the Madness (Or Be-Kind-To-Robots Week in KL)

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Antares is amused and bemused by Hiroshi Koike’s extended kinetic haiku, SPRING IN KUALA LUMPUR
 

“Pappa TARAHUMARA productions try to liberate themselves from ‘meaning,’ leaving members of the audience free to control their own imaginations.”  (from the program notes)

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Hiroshi Koike, visionary director

About 20 years ago I toyed with the idea of scripting and directing a paralingual movement theater piece to be called “Faulty Robots” – wherein our mundane activities and melodramas would reveal themselves as the mechanistic acting out of hardwired programs designed to prevent us from ever escaping the 3D frequency grid we unquestioningly accept as “reality.”

Being the lazy fellow I am, I decided to adopt as my own the Taoist maxim: “achieve everything by doing nothing.” And so, in 1982, Hiroshi Koike (a more industrious aspect of myself, I suppose) founded the Pappa TARAHUMARA experimental dance company and began laying the groundwork that would ultimately lead to “Faulty Robots” being staged as a collaboration between Five Arts Centre and Pappa TARAHUMARA. Of course, they had to change the title to something inoffensive like Spring In Kuala Lumpur.

And, because Hiroshi Koike has trod a somewhat different life-path, his version turned out a lot more poker-facedly serious and a great deal less accessible than my original concept.  Fortunately, I could recognize Hiroshi’s creation as an interesting permutation of “Faulty Robots” – so I wasn’t prompted to dismiss his effort as “profoundly boring” (as a catty old friend, himself a choreographer, was heard to remark after the show).

ImageInstead, I found Spring In Kuala Lumpur fairly provocative and impressively staged. Hiroshi is precise in his use of symbolism: arrows = masculinity, government, control; lips = feminity, permissiveness, surrender (but more on this fascinating subject later).

His obsession with precision extends to how the human figures on stage interact with one another and with their surroundings (the set by Bayu Utomo Radjikin is a cross between a railway station, a ship, and an insane asylum). Every segment of the soundtrack was selected by the director for its precise effect on the prevailing mood of each scene.

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Foo May Lyn,
Drunk Woman

Even the casting reflected Hiroshi’s meticulous attention to detail. For instance, I can’t think of anyone better qualified than Foo May Lyn to play the Drunk Woman At The Railway Crossing. Seated in a wheelchair throughout the action, May Lyn’s delectable madness as a storyteller had a method to it that somehow anchored the chaotic, non-linear events in a pseudo-historical, narrative context – providing an interesting counterpoint to Anne James as the Woman Who Has Had An Accident (and who finally reincarnates as the Vamp With A Flaming Red Wig). Though she isn’t mentioned in the credits, Marion D’Cruz did an outstanding job as the Crone Who Controls The Drunk Woman’s Wheelchair.

ImageElaine Pedley was fabulous as the Woman With A Burning Desire For Love, and her every irrational behavior was animatedly executed. As Berg, the Man With Suppressed Desires, Lee Swee Keong was superbly convincing, especially when lapsing into total robotism. Likewise, Michael Xavier Voon as the Solitary Man whose enigmatic and unpredictable moves approached a high order of slapstick ballet.

Mao Arata (as Berg’s wife, Bemberg, A Woman Who Knows), Makie Sekiguchi (as an Extremely Self-Satisfied Woman), and Makoto Matsushima (as the Man Who Flees) were the Japanese components, all dedicated and talented members of Pappa TARAHUMARA. They interacted seamlessly with the Malaysian cast members, further reinforcing the transpersonal detachment required to make such an extraordinarily energetic fusion of dance and theater work.

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Weijun Loh, incredible stamina

Indeed, every member of the hand-picked cast – which included Jerrica Lai, Kiea Kuan Nam, Shafirul Azmi Suhaimi, Sharip Zainal Sagkif Shek and Weijun Loh – performed with impeccable discipline, focus, precision, and incredible stamina. It was evident from their total surrender to Hiroshi’s directorial vision that the man’s ability to inspire and push to new levels of performance is nothing short of phenomenal.

ImageIn effect, Spring in Kuala Lumpur was a unique opportunity for a few of our most promising actors and dancers to work with a cutting-edge Japanese dance company whose artistic director’s quirky, haiku-ish vision has won him growing international acclaim. But, apart from being a great workout for the performers, what was it all about? Why did producer Ken Takiguchi and his hardworking team from the Japan Foundation put so much sweat, over so many months, into facilitating this logistically elaborate event?

ImageHere’s where it gets interesting. Having declared at the outset that Pappa TARAHUMARA isn’t particularly concerned about “meaning” in its dance-theater projects, does this imply that “meaninglessness” is an essential part of its repertoire?  And why should audiences fork out good money to watch something “meaningless” –  in any case, so defiantly, arty-fartily obscure?

Hiroshi Koike revealed in a promotional interview that Spring In Kuala Lumpur was his artistic response to the world since September 11, 2001. This makes sense in view of his use of symbols, disjointed text and free association (arrow, sparrow, marriage, condom, and so on). Arrows imply direction, humans are conditioned to follow arrows, even if they ultimately lead nowhere. The male symbol is also the symbol for Mars and features a circle with an erect arrow. Mars is the invasive-divisive principle, the patron god of war, surgery, and agriculture. Uncannily meaningful, especially at a time when the red planet is at its closest proximity to the Earth – and warmongers threaten perpetual bloodshed.

Women’s lips are erotic, suggestive of vulvas, sensual delights, romantic passion. To be pursued by kisses or to pursue phantasmal arrows is pretty much part of the basic human bi-polarity. Railway stations are a sort of purgatory, an existential limbo where souls await the means to travel onward to their final destinies – or, at least, to some other destination.

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Lee Swee Keong in rehearsal for Hiroshi Koike’s
Mahabharata project in Cambodia, May 2013

The cold clinicality of the set, combined with the precisely choreographed erratic behavior of the characters, also conjured the other-worldly ambience of a lunatic asylum. The Drunk Woman At The Railway Crossing turns out to be the Gatekeeper. She alone has the power to open and close the gate, thereby controlling the movements of the other entities on stage. When the railway gate is open it looks like a ship’s mast for Berg to shinny up and mouth some disjointed text. (Is this really a ship of fools like the Titanic? Why is his name “Berg”? An allusion to mountains and shepherds and Zionist usury – or a subtle tribute to Ingmar Bergman?)

The railway gate itself becomes a sort of Caucasian Chalk Circle: in the Caucasus mountains, magicians are able to hypnotize people so they absolutely cannot leave the arbitrary confines of a circle drawn around them in chalk, unless the magician breaks the spell. This represents the social taboo – and human societies consist of a complex of taboos and totems (the subject of a fascinating painting by Max Ernst).

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Whoever has the ability to manipulate and exploit human taboos and totems takes on deific or diabolical powers. Those that allow themselves to be thus exploited and manipulated forfeit their humanity and become mere machines – cogs in an invisible wheel, commonly referred to as The System or, in today’s parlance, The Matrix. Their lives, devoid of real meaning or purpose, become incoherent memory fragments; their actions, dictated by impulses beyond their conscious control, become a Zen study for avant-garde dance-theater projects.

So what about the dead pussycat? And the stuffed sparrow dangling from the rafters? Who was Weijun fleeing from? And what the @%#! was Berg muttering at the beginning and end of the show?

Hiroshi Koike asks, in his director’s notes: “Where do people come from, and where do they go?”

Good question! Much more stimulating, anyhow, than: “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”

23 September 2003
 

A TASTE OF SPRING IN KUALA LUMPUR

TAMING of the SARI

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Taming Sari, a 500-year-old keris reputedly belonging to Hang Tuah, the legendary Malay warrior (photo: Casey Ng)

Antares plays Red Devils’ Advocate at MANCHESTER UNITED AND THE MALAY WARRIOR

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Rani Moorthy, Malaysian-born Mancunian

Having been greatly entertained by Rani Moorthy’s one-woman play, Pooja, I was looking forward to the staging of her latest work, Manchester United and the Malay Warrior (which will see a one-week run in June at Cultureshock, the Commonwealth Games Cultural Festival in Manchester). A collaboration between Five Arts Centre, Rasa (Ms Moorthy’s own company) and Contact (UK), the project was spawned from a Creative Industries Trade Mission from Malaysia to Manchester two years ago. As a Mancunian resident born in Malaysia, Rani Moorthy was ideally positioned to create this complex study of hero archetypes in a cross-cultural context. Ms Moorthy’s non-linear text was intelligent and lyrical, laden with historical and mythical references, and whimsically addressed the issue of cultural and ethnic identities in non-Euclidean spacetime. But how it was translated to the stage raised a few questions many have asked but no one can answer. For instance, what defines a play as “experimental” and what makes it plain boring? When does artsy turn into fartsy and vice versa? Not so long ago, a cross-cultural dramatic collaboration of colossal proportions was staged in KL. Called Pulau Antara – The Island In Between, it was directed by Jo Kukathas with a huge Japanese and Malaysian cast. Despite a few structural weaknesses in the script, it proved to be a spectacular production and broke through to new levels of artistic and technical achievement in its use of multimedia effects.

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Krishen Jit, Malaysian dramaturge & theater doyen

The same cannot be said of Manchester United and the Malay Warrior as dramatized by the indefatigable Krishen Jit. After nearly 40 years in theater, Krishen’s reputation as a dramaturge is probably too firmly entrenched to be shaken -or even dented – by mere criticism. But, much as I love the man and respect his dedication to the development of a “post-colonial” Malaysian theater style, I have to say he seems to have run out of ideas. That doesn’t mean I think he should stop. Theater is his life and soul, and even if his dramaturgical output is wearing thin, we’re happy to have him around forever. Indeed, we’re fortunate to have him around at all. A saucy rojak of Malay bangsawan and Chinese opera, tossed in with random elements of Brecht, Chekov, and Ionesco, may produce a universal salad with a distinctly local flavor, but it doesn’t constitute a dietary staple. And you can’t keep microwaving and serving up last week’s rojak without losing customers or turning it into gado-gado. The bottom line is, people are paying more and more for an evening at the theatre – and they want to be entertained, not merely provoked and left scratching their heads. High-brow art doesn’t necessarily hasten the receding of hairlines on eggheads, it can also be wonderfully down-to-earth, engaging, soul-satisfying, sexy and, above all, enjoyable. Art comes from the heart, not the head. True, a learned head can craft what the heart says into sheer eloquence, but too much left-brain processing only turns it into empty, institutionalized rhetoric. In his director’s notes, Krishen says:

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Hang Tuah vs Hang Jebat,
Apollonian vs Dionysian

“One of the most debatable issues was the character and persona of Hang Tuah and his brand of heroism. The revised version of the play tussles with the contested notions; the phenomenon of contestation and dispute continue to preoccupy our current rehearsals. An edginess continues to occupy the air of the rehearsals, producing tensions and conflicts that are one of the stimulating aspects of the present collaboration.” Reading between the lines, one gets the impression that there was a fair amount of artistic disagreement amongst the collaborators (at least one hopes there was); but judging from the performance, it would appear the director had the final say. Was there nothing I liked about Man U and the Malay Warrior? Well, the technical aspects were fine (nothing particularly brilliant) except for the incidental music which kept jamming, causing the dancers to pause in mid-step till the sound came back on (now, this jerky effect could have been deliberate, it’s hard to tell with a Five Arts production). Video footage of the Manchester United soccer club was inserted at strategic points but contributed little (apart from breaking the visual monotony) to Ms Moorthy’s musings on culture heroes.

Elaine Pedley, livewire performer

British actress-director Romy Baskerville turned in a stalwart performance as the nostalgic pensioner Alice; and the multi-talented Mohamad Arifwaran (who also choreographed) was fairly engaging as Kamal and Hang Jebat. Jerrica Lai as Tun Teja was her usual intense self (and did well as a dominatrix in one of the video sequences). Elaine Pedley and Mardiana Ismail (Hang Lekir and Hang Kasturi) were energetic, highly focused, and very cute. However, Adlin Aman Ramlie’s Hang Tuah looked but didn’t sound the part at all; while Chee Sek Thim was rather lame as Hang Lekiu, loverboy Tengku, and even as the ethereal back-projected Jinn (whose mask-like makeup was neither grotesque nor scary, it was simply unaesthetic and uninspired). The “Keystone Kop” prop movers (working at high speed to a silent film soundtrack) might have been intended to lend the proceedings a cartoonish dimension – but I didn’t laugh, nor was I amused by the frozen grimaces on the dancers’ faces. Some people are too serious to be funny and Krishen Jit is a prime example. Somehow, the boundaries between comical, farcical, and poignant moments became blurred, so much so that any inherent humor or wisdom in the script was obliterated by the stilted style of the performances. In the early 1980s Five Arts Centre dedicated itself to producing cutting-edge theater. Time (and sponsorship contraints) may have considerably blunted that edge, but in this arts-unfriendly climate, we have little choice but to keep supporting and cheering on the few institutions that have endured. Nonetheless, beyond subjective definitions of “excellent” or “mediocre” theater, paying audiences expect to at least enjoy themselves. No doubt there were a few “interesting” ideas thrown at us but, alas, there was far too little joy in the experience.

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Manchester’s Red Devils may encounter visa hassles in Islamic countries…

7 May 2002

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