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LOOKS LIKE ‘VISITS’ IS HERE TO STAY

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Antares checks outs the full-blooded reincarnation of Jit Murad’s “simple little piece”

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Jit Murad

“My critics are rarely as clever as me,” quips Jit Murad in his playwright’s notes.

I don’t know anyone else who can get away with a comment like that, even though he’s probably just stating the obvious. Puckish charm and ebullient wit aside, Jit Murad is indisputably a storyteller par excellence. And he has the medicine man’s healing touch. His characters are parodies of people you’re likely to encounter in Brave New Malaysia, but he has a knack of redeeming them even as he pokes gentle fun at them.

I caught a draft version of Visits in December 2001 when Ida Nerina showcased it for her directorial debut. It was lighthearted and enjoyable, and showed great promise – considering its humble beginnings in 1994 as three short monologues written for a reading by three actresses – Liza Othman, Sukania Venugopal, and Ida Nerina (who kept the only surviving copy of Jit’s original typewritten text).  In any case, the play was warmly received and this inspired Jit and Ida to flesh out and fine-tune the material for a full-blooded production, incorporating a multimedia screen and original music by Anton Morgan.

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Liza Othman

Visits is a wonderful workout for three accomplished actresses and does well enough without the frills. The pre-programmed screensaver effects (designed by Helena Song), though restrained and tasteful, did not add significantly to the production. Indeed, the kinetic backdrop occasionally detracted from the live action, and kept reminding me I was in a theater.  The key elements have to be the performers and the stories they tell. But sensitive lighting certainly helps, and Teo Kuang Han did a laudable job with the mood shifting.

The opening monologue by the loquacious nurse – a delightful character endearingly recreated by Liza Othman – is a tough bit of business for any actress. When she launches into the lengthy anecdote about the Mamak trader locking his wife in the basement with her maidservant each time he goes out of town, details tend to get lost, along with credibility. Hard to put a finger on the problem here, but I felt a bump the first time around too. Once past that point, the nurse comes into her own and becomes gloriously human and huggable. Liza Othman is a perennial pleasure to watch in action, so charged with warmth and earthy femininity is she.

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Vanidah Imran

Vanidah Imran was simply fantastic as Woman. Incredible empathy and appeal framed in unfeigned vulnerability. I badly wanted to take her to the movies and buy her a cappucino afterwards (preferably spiked with psilocybin). This Woman’s a soulsister, pulak! Lots of soul, a warm, befriendable presence on stage. And she looks so comfortable in satin pyjamas.

The catalytic rôle of Sister-in-Law was taken on by Sarah Shahrum, who took a few minutes to warm up the night I caught the play (perhaps she was conscious of her father’s bow-tied presence in the auditorium; or maybe the delayed response was simply my adjusting to not seeing her in a designer tudung, the way Sofia Jane played it). Once she lost herself (or I got used to her) in the character, her performance was impressive. Sarah Shahrum has exquisite poise and the potential to develop into a very fine actress.

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Sarah Shahrum

Seeing the play in its fresh incarnation allowed me to view it in a somewhat different context than as a directors’ workshop exercise. Was it intended as a study of three contemporary Malay women from different social backgrounds? Was the playwright using the monologues as subtle commentary on class conflicts within the ummah (the Malay Muslim community)? True, there were references to skin-tone prejudice (“Takes a lot of money to lighten your complexion, if you’re born with dark skin.”)  And the fact that the office boy who gets hanged for possession of cannabis is named Hakim (judge) – was that a veiled criticism of our barbaric drug laws or a weak pun on “hanging judge”?

The playwright himself sounded a bit defensive in his program notes: “The three women were intended to sound as if Tennessee Williams had written a Cerekarama (Malay TV drama).”  He swears he intended no “wanky grand unifying idea.”

An intellectual Malay friend who discussed the play with me afterwards wasn’t particularly bowled over by the proceedings. “People don’t talk like that in real life,” she protested. Obviously, not everyone in the Klang Valley is a fan of Jit Murad, Tennessee Williams, or Cerekarama.

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Ida Nerina, director

Speaking for myself, I was charmed by Jit’s ability to always identify the core of humanity in his characters and give them the opportunity to reveal their hidden virtues. Indeed, I found myself touched by the play’s essential poignancy and compassion. The vivacious talent that Visits has brought to the stage is also something to applaud. Indeed, it was Visits that got Liza Othman to grace the boards once again, after a long absence. And it was Visits that introduced superb actresses like Vanidah Imran and Melissa Saila (who played Woman in the earlier version) to English-language theater. And it was Visits that lured the delectable Sofia Jane back to the stage as the Sister-in-law in the first production – and introduced Sarah Shahrum’s acting skills to a whole new audience. Visits may never be acclaimed as the finest example of Jit’s work as a playwright, but the goodnatured humor and life-affirming pathos of the interwoven monologues will always prove an irresistible challenge to any aspiring actress or director.

Ida Nerina deserves a huge round of applause, not only for doing a commendable job of directing – but especially for having had the foresight to preserve the original script for posterity, and the tenacity and vision to see it realized in its fullness as a workable production.

February 2002

VISITS ~ AND REVISITS

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Antares experiences dejá vù at the preview of Jit Murad’s new play

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Liza Othman (Zaidi Ahmad)

The last time I saw Liza Othman on stage was in 1988 when I played her husband in an original play by Maureen Ten. Jit Murad played our son. Then she got married (in real life) and vanished from public view until December 5th, 2001 – when Jit’s play VISITS was previewed under the Five Arts Centre/Actors Studio Directors’ Workshop Project with Ida Nerina making her directorial debut.

Liza Othman’s long sabbatical from the local stage was, I felt, a tremendous loss to  theater.  She is perhaps one of the most sensitive and versatile actresses I have had the pleasure of working with – apart, perhaps, from Fatimah Abu Bakar, who also gave up acting to devote herself to raising a family.  But in the interim we witnessed the arrival of many scintillating pros like Sukania Venugopal, Jo Kukathas, Joanna Bessey, Paula Malai Ali, Foo May Lyn, Sandra Sodhy, Shanthini Venugopal, Mary George, Nell Ng, Merissa Teh, Jerrica Lai, et al. Still, it was for me a poignant experience to watch Liza Othman in action again – even if she appeared just a wee bit jittery during the opening scene, which she carries more or less solo (the other actress, Melissa Saila, being all the while completely hidden under the bedclothes).

It didn’t take Liza long to win the audience over.

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Sofia Jane

I became an ardent fan of Sofia Jane the moment I saw her on screen in some best forgotten Melayu movie (no, it wasn’t Uwei Hajisaari’s controversial Perempuan, Isteri, dan… which had some unforgettable moments). Indeed, in Sofia Jane I thought we had the makings of a Malaysian Sophia Loren… and then she, too, got married and vanished from public view for several years.  VISITS marks Sofia’s long-hoped-for return to theatre, now as Sofia Jane Azman and a mother of two. She’s as rivetingly beautiful as ever – and still one of the finest actresses this country has ever produced. It was truly a treat to watch two of my favorite actresses on stage together in an effervescent play written by someone I’ve always loved and respected.

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Melissa Saila

Melissa Saila was making her debut in English-language theater, though she has starred in numerous Malay TV dramas and recently appeared in a much acclaimed Malay adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest.  Hers was a face new to me but she carried herself like a pro – and held her own against two absolutely charismatic and far more experienced actresses. There were a few moments when she lapsed into the excessive histrionics that’s long been a trademark of all Malay TV soaps – but then again the character she was playing probably grew up on a sudsy diet of melodrama. She, too, I’m happy to report, is gifted with star appeal – that special attribute Malays call berseri.

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Ida Nerina: directorial debut

Working with such a winning cast and with such a charmingly written text, Ida Nerina – herself a talented and vivacious actress – would have had to try very hard to come up with a lousy play. Since this is her debut as a director, one applauds heartily if the whole thing actually hangs together; one doesn’t delve into minute technicalities; one simply celebrates Ida’s triumph and the arrival of exciting new directorial talent. Besides, director, cast, and playwright now have seven weeks to fine-tune and tailor the occasionally fluffy material into better defined shape.

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Playwright Jit Murad

What of the play itself? Well, it’s very much a Jit Murad original. Natural-born storyteller Jit is a whiz at concocting Woody Allenish studies (“It’s my homage to Tennessee Williams,” the playwright insists) of a particular class and generation of Malays (in this instance three interesting specimens of Malay womanhood), gently poking fun at their foibles even as he redeems them with sheer lovability. Years of association with the Instant Café Theatre has made him expert at aiming pointed asides at the pompous, the hypocritical, and the politically unassailable while distracting us with rambling, yet thoroughly entertaining, monologues.

Gold Rain and Hailstones, which marked Jit’s debut as a playwright in the mid-90s, still ranks as a milestone event in local theater.  His next effort, The Storyteller, was overly long-winded but had its glorious moments and deserves to be revived in slightly edited form. It remains to be seen, when Visits opens for the public on January 30, 2002, if this one is going to mature into a major hit. Even as a work-in-progress it already has the makings of a minor masterpiece – thanks to the magic stirred into it by four beautiful and powerful women.

December 2001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yummy Airline Fare

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Ida Nerina

Ida Nerina

Yasmin Yaacob made her debut as a playwright in March 1999 with A Flight Delayed – a light, upbeat romantic comedy in the tradition of a whole slew of sparkling, witty “romcoms” from Hollywood that feature lovable, mildly neurotic couples portrayed by the likes of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Local theatergoers have to settle for Zahim Albakri and Ida Nerina, but I don’t hear any serious complaints.

But on the Tuesday I caught A Flight Delayed, both Zahim and Ida (as Jeff and Rin, a yuppie couple bound for New Zealand on vacation) took a while to snap into character. For some reason, neither of them seemed totally comfortable with their lines. Perhaps Zahim’s double role as actor AND director left him too little time to fully become Jeff Ahmad (brave new Malaysian workaholic adman, divorced and now going unsteady with a vivacious but emotionally insecure girlfriend). At any rate Zahim and Ida are both pretty enough, and experienced enough, to win over any audience within 10 minutes of walking onstage.

Actually I almost missed the flight: I hadn’t reserved a seat and the Actors Studio Theatre was packed to the rafters. That in itself is the best review any production can hope for. When people feel adequately entertained they’ll tell their friends about it. Still, a wee bit of nitpicking won’t hurt.

Zahim Albakri

Zahim Albakri

Okay, so the plot isn’t all that thick. But Yasmin Yaacob’s flair for dialogue lends the whole concoction the easy appeal of a strawberry sundae with whipped cream topping. Never mind that strawberry isn’t your typical Malaysian flavor; but then Yasmin isn’t your typical Malaysian either, having spent seven impressionable years in New Zealand while reading law. Her acquired cosmopolitanism is reflected in the play’s contemporary concerns. Affluence is what makes all the difference: Jeff and Rin are Melayu Baru yuppies from Bangsar who can afford to fly off to Kiwiland for some fun and fornication without having to dodge dirty minded goon squads from the Religious Department.

Here’s a totally modern, unmarried young Malay couple whose issues center around career, emotional commitment, and trust; they’ve outgrown the medieval concepts of khalwat and zina (close proximity and fornication are punishable offences in Muslim Malaysia under the Syariah laws). Even when a tudung-wearing traditional fellow passenger begins to poke her Melayu Lama nose into Rin’s affairs, she stops short of asking to see her marriage certificate.

Azean Irdawaty

Azean Irdawaty

Patrick Teoh

Patrick Teoh

Since the action takes place in a bustling international airport where all types converge, there’s plenty of scope for brilliant cameo performances from veterans like Patrick Teoh, who plays a burnt out high flying salesman with a mid-life crisis; and movie doyenne Azean Irdawaty, whose down to earth portrayal of Puan Fatimah, a funky makcik proved to be a real winner with the crowd.

Adriani Wahjanto, a promising newcomer to local theater, did a commendable job as Deena, Jeff’s sexy college chum; Ryan Lee Bhaskaran, at 12 the youngest in the cast, breezed through his part as the apple of Puan Fatimah’s eye; and Nell Ng charmed everybody as a wisecrack and toilet paper dispensing airport janitor.

In fact, the whole ensemble was pretty energetic and fairly disciplined: a testimony to Zahim Albakri’s sound directorial instincts and Mac Chan’s fast paced lighting. The frenetic, choreographed movements (by Lianna Leong) were effectively and efficiently used to change the tempo and rearrange the elegant set (by Adeline Ooi).

Nell Ng

Nell Ng

Ironically, the pacing went flabby only in several scenes where Zahim was interacting with Ida. Somehow the chemistry between them wasn’t entirely working, though it’s difficult to put one’s finger on exactly why certain exchanges didn’t quite come alive. I’ve heard reports that Iskandar Najmuddin did exceptionally well as Jeff in last year’s production; perhaps that’s why Zahim had trouble creating his own version of Jeff.

A Flight Delayed may not be the most original of plays, but it certainly has enough box-office appeal and wacky sophistication to warrant a movie version. Or at least several more extended runs. Already it has been included in the program of the Singapore Arts Festival 2000 in June and I don’t believe the selection was made entirely on the basis that the action is set in Changi Airport.

 

  24 February 2000

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