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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

Why Knock Funny Money?

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The original Charley’s Aunt by W.S. Penley

Antares reviews Charley’s Auntie! 

Was it really worth getting totally drenched, riding through a torrential downpour on the wettest day in recent memory, to catch a Sunday matinee performance of Charley’s Auntie! at the Actors Studio Box?

Probably not. But I can’t say I didn’t have as good a time as Mr Vincent Teoh, a retired school teacher sitting next to me, who told me this was the first theater production he’d seen in his life. What prompted him to see this utterly silly but endearing (and enduring) farce? Apparently his good friend Dr Ho (from Muar) insisted that he come along. Judging from the satisfaction on his face, Mr Teoh obviously thought it was a jolly good show and would make it a point to go watch more plays in future.

This is enough to warm the heart of anyone who loves the theater and would like to see it flourish in Malaysia. There’s a vast potential market for upbeat, escapist stage productions beyond the British Airways dinner theater scene – especially for general audiences who would balk at the thought of forking out RM90++ for a few forgettable laughs to go with some fancy cuisine. And what if the material can be adapted and packaged for TV…?

The last time I was at the Box, it was to witness William Gluth’s virtuoso interpretation of I, Cyclops – which, as theater fare goes, is about as esoteric and highbrow as it gets in Kuala Lumpur. It was nice to see a full house this time and happy faces on the way out.

Sometimes, it’s a blessed relief to experience a blast of unpretentious mainstream theater. I saw The Sound of Music last year and was thoroughly delighted. I’m really not into dark and brooding, angst-driven dramas. I appreciate well produced, well performed fluff like anyone else who occasionally turns on the telly and soaks up a couple of laugh-a-minute sitcoms.

ImageAnd the great-grandmother of sitcoms has to be Charley’s Aunt – Brandon Thomas’s Edwardian masterpiece of orchestrated chaos and over-the-top foolishness – which has been running since the 1890s and has seen countless productions, amateur and professional, throughout the world.

Richard Harding Gardner wrote and directed this effervescent adaptation for a Malaysian audience, aided and abetted by producer (and accomplished actress) Chae Lian. Gardner is quick to point out that members of the cast contributed significantly to the very local flavor of the lively repartee. Indeed, there’s no way Gardner could have stopped the likes of Na’a Murad or Indi Nadarajah from embellishing his script with their own irrepressible wit. Both have performed in and contributed material to the infamous Instant Café Theatre skits. Nadarajah, in fact, is co-founder of The Comedy Court with the remarkable Allan Perera, and their hysterically funny “Loga and Singam” routine has been an indisputable runaway success.

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Na’a Murad

As Fadzil the wolf in aunt’s clothing, Na’a Murad’s expressive exuberance banishes forever the popular misconception that he isn’t every bit as cute, clever and talented as his celebrated brother Jit. And as Taufeeq the sleazy lawyer, Indi Nadarajah fully deserves a Slimy Award. Taufeeq’s profit-motivated and ardent pursuit of Charley’s “aunt” provides an excuse for a profusion of giggles and guffaws and ribald innuendo. In the best bangsawan folk theater tradition, the broad humor in Charley’s Auntie! runs the gamut from exquisite sarcasm to ludicrous farce.

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Indi Nadarajah

Rope in two energetic, fresh-faced young Romeos named Rashid Salleh and Khaeryll Benjamin as Charley and Johari; add a couple of seasoned stage veterans like the redoubtable Azean Irdawaty and the supersuave Othman Hafsham (as the Baroness and Major Ghazali); toss in the luminously beautiful and delightfully capable Joanna Bessey (last seen on TV as the new millennium Lux girl); garnish with a couple of “marriageable” debutantes like Natasya Yusoff and Fash Stephenson (as Kitty and Amy); top it all off with some genuine goonishness, courtesy of David Lim as the chronically befuddled Ah Boon… and voila! you have the makings of a potential money-spinner.

Never mind political correctness as long as the ethnic mix is right. So what if all the men are conniving twits and the women twittering coquettes and the token Chinaman is acutely acumen-deficient? In khalwat-conscious Malaysia, the basic premise of the plot – that Charley needed his aunt’s visit as an excuse to invite Amy and Kitty over for tea – isn’t too far-fetched, especially if you set the action in an upper class boarding school in the early 1960s.

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Richard Harding Gardner

Writer-director Gardner, as it happens, is also a filmmaker and creative consultant with an audio, video and multimedia production house. So it makes perfect sense that Charley’s Auntie! be videotaped and edited for local and regional television. Sounds like an idea that ought to have taken off ages ago. Indeed, it should have happened way back in 1987 when Thor Kah Hoong came up with his eminently televisable Caught In The Middle series. As for the Instant Café Theatre, everyone knows why they still haven’t been taped and televised – they’re just not inoffensive enough!

What the televised version of Charley’s Auntie! will look like is anyone’s guess. Should this independently funded experiment succeed in gaining a TV audience of millions, it might pave the way for a self-financing resurgence of the performing arts in Malaysia. Theater practitioners will be lured into signing lucrative contracts, to hell with High Art. Acting, set design, stage lighting, and directing will become viable occupations. Professional theater will, at last, be part of mainstream Malaysian culture.

Will this inspire nothing but a slew of recycled stage hits targeted at a much broader “consumer base”? Such a trend is not without its dangers. Once you start playing to “market forces” and the lowest common denominator, you tend to get a bit too glib and end up with nothing worth saying. Oh well, another face of “globalization,” I suppose.

31 May 2002

Fertile Ground

Allan Perera & Indi Nadarajah: a hilarious Heckle & Jeckle duo

Antares undergoes MenAPause 

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Heckle & Jeckle, animated magpies
from the 1950s

Allan Perera and Indi Nadarajah discovered each other through the legendary Instant Café Theatre, of which both were early members.  The mirth-provoking chemistry between them is reminiscent of classic comedy double acts like Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Belushi and Akroyd, Cheech and Chong.  What’s more, both happen to also be accomplished musicians and songsmiths.

As Loga and Singham, a pair of loquacious Indian pub pundits, they were an absolute knockout.  The success of their double piss-take on all things Indian (and Malaysian) led to the formation of Comedy Court.  And now Perera and Nadarajah have done it again, in drag, as Mertle and Thavi.

Their latest venture, MenAPause opened to packed houses at the Actors Studio Theatre, Bangsar, on July 26 and ends its run on August 4.  Looks like they’ve hit the sitcom jackpot once again – and the Malaysian funnybone – with their comic study in banality and bathos.  My companion, who comes from an Eurasian-Indian household, said all the jokes cut painfully and hysterically close to the bone.  For a very large proportion of the audience, MenAPause must have been something of a cathartic experience.

Indi Nadarajah as Thavi Kanagasabai & Allan Perera as Mertle Rodrigo

Allan Perera’s “Mertle Rodrigo” is a bossy, sharp-tongued middle-aged Eurasian housewife with two teenaged kids, John-boy (capably played by the never-aging Patrick Stevens) and Shirley-girl (somewhat self-consciously portrayed by Valerie Dass).  Indi Nadarajah plays “Thavi Kanagasabai” – Mertle’s terribly Tamil childhood friend – with nonchalant ease and tremendous gusto.

The fast and furious flow of colloquial wit kept everyone in stitches.  Thavi’s revelation that one of the Selvadurai kids was the illegitimate product of Mr Selvadurai’s brief affair with a Malay telephone operator elicits this barbed response from Mertle: “Well, one thing you can say about Indians, they’re very fertile.”

A kitchen scene where Thavi waxes lyrical on the occult virtues of rasam (a spicy Tamil soup) leads to a full-blown eulogy on the culinary creativity of the sub-continent: “India is the source of all foods – so what if people are starving there – all the food comes from India.”

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Uncrowned Kings of Comedy Court

There are even a handful of songs thrown in (no Indian production is complete without a few song and dance numbers).  Perera and Nadarajah are no Lerner and Loewe but the musical moments successfully kept up the play’s momentum – although it would be more accurate to describe MenAPause as an extended skit rather than a play.  A large proportion of the humor seemed purely gratuitous – thrown in just for laughs – but most of it was quite irresistible, even silly bits like the delivery boy’s misreading of Mertle’s name as “Mentle Rodrigo.”

John-boy examines the package from Aunt Agnes and sees a card inscribed: “Happy Menopause!”  He asks his mother what the word means and Mertle’s reply is worth quoting: “Well, when a woman reaches a certain age, she gets more and more beautiful… until the very sight of her is enough to make men, er… pause.”

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They deserve their own TV series

As to be expected the contents of the package from Aunt Agnes are rather naughty – the main item being a battery-operated dildo which Thavi innocently uses to stir her rasam.  The stage is set for the arrival of Sister Margaret (winningly portrayed by Gracie Low)… and Mertle’s gossipy relatives from Penang.  But, then, in Mertle and Thavi’s world, all relatives ever do is gossip.

2 August 2001

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