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THE B*LTIM*RE W*LTZ OPENS IN KL!

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Censorship & the performing arts in Malaysia: a case study

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Paula Vogel

This was supposed to be a straightforward review of a not-so-straightforward play, The Baltimore Waltz by the award-winning playwright Paula Vogel, directed by Rey Buono and produced by the Instant Café Theatre. However, external circumstances sometimes intrude and irrevocably alter the course originally intended.

The play was very nearly cancelled. Indeed, one day before opening night, The Baltimore Waltz was banned by DBKL (Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur aka City Hall) which issues public performance licences for all shows staged in the Federal Territory. DBKL have thus far been, to their credit, fairly cooperative, easygoing and mature about this ruling – until the recent flap over The Vagina Monologues (which saw a very successful initial run, only to have its application for an extension rejected).

Producer Adeline Tan and artistic director Jo Kukathas filed an urgent appeal with DBKL and, after agreeing to extensive cuts, were given permission to stage the play as scheduled. This, in itself, is reason to celebrate: firstly, the never-say-die feistiness of ICT and the cast of The Baltimore Waltz, which saved the show; and secondly, the fact that the show did go on indicates that the people who work at DBKL aren’t TOTALLY unreasonable and are, to a certain extent, still open to a little give-and-take. After all, a tremendous amount of energy, time, money, and talent goes into a theatrical production of this caliber – and it only takes one “TAK BOLEH!” to see everything go down the drain. Theatergoers will be condemned to a boring plastic future of uncontroversial plays and harmless frolic – because potential sponsors will inevitably balk at any material that extends the frontiers of artistic expression.

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Rey Buono

This is a good time for all of us, whether or not directly involved in the performing and cinematic arts, to reassess how we really feel about being told what we can and cannot see and hear on stage or on the screen. Who decides and why? Censorship, no matter what the excuse, ultimately serves only to retard us mentally and culturally infantilize us. This may suit you fine if you happen to be in business or the bureaucracy – after all, a bunch of docile, overgrown kids are easy to keep in line with candy and canes (or bread and circuses).

Malaysia’s censorship laws, like our notorious Internal Security Act, are a legacy of the British administration. Archaic, irrelevant and unnecessary though they be, these laws are a convenient foil against any attempt to change the status quo or overthrow the ruling regime through nonviolent means. I’d like to quote extensively from my review of Chin San Sooi’s heavily censored play, Morning In Night, published in the New Sunday Times of August 24, 1986:

Freedom of expression isn’t something one can take for granted. Even in merry England, the necessity of getting official sanction for all plays was a centuries-old thorn in the side of the theater community – until 1967 or thereabouts when Kenneth Tynan led a successful campaign to abolish the all-powerful rôle of the Lord Chamberlain in granting public performance permits.

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Robert Walpole (1676 ~ 1745)

The history of secular censorship in the English theater goes back to a Playhouse Bill proposed by Robert Walpole in 1737. As First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Walpole was in a highly favorable position to amass great personal wealth through corruption; he was, in fact, unofficially England’s first Prime Minister and not without his critics, who often resorted to the symbolic weapon of the stage to lampoon his inflated political ambitions. Walpole’s Playhouse Bill passed into law and all scripts were subjected to the Lord Chamberlain’s scrutiny; the Lord Chamberlainship, naturally, was an office appointed by the Lord Chancellor of the Exchequer. The fact that it took the English 230 years to rid themselves of this particular nuisance shows how difficult it is to unmake unnecessary laws.

I hear voices piping up: “But, but… there HAS TO BE some form of control over artistic output or the whole nation will be plunged into chaos!” Well, let’s remind ourselves that originally all artistic expression was regarded as the chief means by which Divine Intelligence (or the Collective Psyche) revealed itself to mankind. If we’re going to run around hysterically plugging up these channels of intercommunication just because some of them threaten our narrow understanding of life, would that not precipitate our worst fears and bring about a monopoly of the Truth wielded by vested interests? Humans, in their faithlessness and folly, love to make laws, which the smarter ones break. Wise is he who knows how to unmake laws.

So much for censorship. I don’t have anything positive to say about any form of censorship – and don’t give me that cynical crap about “multiracial, multicultural sensitivities.” The only chance we have to resolve any human conflict is through honest, uncensored communication; and the best people to attempt this task are our writers, thinkers, and performers – not bureaucrats and politicians!

How about the play itself? I didn’t care too much for Paula Vogel’s writing, although I think the play is an instructive study for aspiring playwrights in its clever use of cinematic devices, literary allusions and cultural clichés. Vogel’s insights and responses are circumscribed by the intellectual materialism of her academic background. Her script, which humanizes the experience of being gay and dying of AIDS, may evoke sympathy for AIDS sufferers in particular and homosexuals in general – but her typically American (Hollywood?) sentimentality about death and dying came across as trite. I’d have been a great deal more intrigued if she had at least alluded to the possibility that the HIV virus was a top-secret population-culling project of the WHO that went awry. Fortunately Vogel managed to poke some timely fun at Big Medicine, pharmaceutical companies and their professional quackery and chicanery.

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Ghafir Akbar

Despite the initially amusing, then annoying, surgical excisions – goodhumoredly captioned with slide announcements like: “UNACCEPTABLE DIALOGUE REMOVED” or “UNACCEPTABLE REMOVAL OF CLOTHING REMOVED” – the play was elegant and sophisticated, and might well have marked a new level of artistic achievement in KL theater. Rey Buono showed himself once again to be an imaginative, intelligent, and inspired theater director who combines craftsmanlike competence with poetic passion.

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Rohaizad Suaidi

The cast deserves a tremendous round of applause for the superhuman effort they put into entertaining their audiences, in the face of the dreadful uncertainties and bureaucratic stress they were all subjected to. Rohaizad Suaidi was credible and animated as Carl; Ghafir Akbar was remarkably versatile with his multiple quick-change characterizations; and Joanna Bessey was simply lovable as Anna. Theirs were technically challenging rôles – especially Ghafir’s – and I felt they could have fine-tuned their characterizations a great deal better without the help of DBKL’s censorship board. As things turned out, it was like going to the cinema and seeing a goondu’s hand blocking the projector every time an “objectionable” scene came up. Unwittingly, DBKL (as the symbol of official repression) became the fourth member of the cast and their performance was, frankly speaking, shameful.

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Joanna Bessey

Malaysians are generally a patient lot but are we prepared to put up with mediocrity forever? Because that’s what censorship ultimately breeds. I certainly hope not. It’s like granting the butler the power to stop you from leaving home if he felt you weren’t “suitably” dressed. Or allowing the security guards to decide what books to order for the library and what books to burn.

An advanced culture loves and accepts diversity in all things and allows free exchange of ideas. It doesn’t stifle artistic expression and suppress truthspeaking theater. Seems like we’re a little backward when it comes to cultural maturity.

[First published in kakiseni.com in June 2003]

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YOU DID SWELL, NELL!

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

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