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A Haunting Experience Indeed

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Pulau-Antara-2001

Antares at PULAU ANTARA ~ THE ISLAND IN BETWEEN

Five hours after leaving the Citra Istana Budaya auditorium – a grandly named island of culture amidst the woeful disarray of the National Cultural Complex – I am still haunted by PULAU ANTARA ~ THE ISLAND IN BETWEEN.

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Director-playwright Jo Kukathas

“Did you know Kompleks Budaya was undergoing massive reconstruction when you chose this venue?”  I asked co-writer/director Jo Kukathas.  “That’s part of the set.  It wasn’t cheap!”  she quipped.  I guess excavators must cost a fair bit to rent.  The van shuttle between car-park and theater was certainly a novelty: no one expects to cross a muddy construction site to see a play, but that’s precisely the desired effect, the blurring of boundaries between “real life” and theater, between history and mystery, between the living and the dead…

PULAU ANTARA is a disturbing play, populated by characters from different times, different cultures, different worlds.  A collaborative effort involving the Tokyo-based Setagaya Public Theatre and Malaysia’s own Instant Café Theatre, the cross-cultural project was generously funded by The Japan Foundation.

Having witnessed the recent rape and ruin of the Selangor River Valley, the play’s theme – of trampling on the past and denying the present to build an illusory future – struck an immediate chord with me.  A beautiful, mysterious island in the Malacca Straits has been earmarked for development as a cyber-city, simply because it’s located at the mid-point of a colossal suspension bridge linking the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra: another megalomaniac scheme to get Malaysia into the Guinness Book of World Records.

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Gene Sha Rudyn as Datuk Zainal

Would-be world-conquering architect, Datuk Zainal (an old boy of the Malay College, Kuala Kangsar, of course), arrives on Pulau Antara to stake his personal claim to fame and fortune – aided and abetted by an ambitious young Japanese engineer, Ryo Tsushima.  They are soon joined by a female architect, Aida Ariffin, who quickly succumbs to the mysterious allure of the island.  Apart from Marvin Sung, a superstitious Chinese engineer on the bridge project; Mantok Pui, a sagely old man who seems to live between dimensions; and Ryo’s pregnant wife Mayumi – who unexpectedly arrives on Pulau Antara, never again to leave – the rest of the cast consists of ghosts and memories caught in a time warp.

There’s Colonel Okada, who died serving Emperor Hirohito in the 1940s; Englishman George, an affable failure in everything; Ananda the scribe, a relic of the Majapahit Empire; Oichi, a 19th century Japanese prostitute; Daiko, a “curse doll” (who represents all bad memories that won’t go away); Asif, a native lad forever dreaming of adventures on the high seas; the schoolboy Harun (a lost fragment of Zainal’s MCKK memories); a couple of other Sungs (Tze Toh, a eunuch emissary with Admiral Cheng Ho’s fleet and Kit Yeng, a jazz musician killed during the Japanese occupation); and there’s the Penanggal, the resident ghost of Pulau Antara that floats around as only a hideous head with gory entrails, dragging mothers-to-be to untimely deaths.

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The “curse doll”

With such a motley crew of human and phantom characters jabbering away in three languages, the plot tends to become a crazy collage of absolutely brilliant bits mixed in with some murky, elusive moments.  Add to the complexity of the multidimensional drama, the need to “subtitle” the Japanese dialogue with back-projected text (in tiny fonts most unkind to the vision-impaired), and what you get is “ambiguous audience response.”

yinyangtreeMany elements were outstanding: the use of magnified leaf skeletons as large scene-shifting screens, suggesting intricate life-webs, neural circuits, arterial networks, topographical maps (harking back to the universal tree-of-life motif); the adroit lighting by Mac Chan; the intensely evocative music by Saidah Rastam; the elegant audio-visual effects by Bernard Chauly; even the meditative sound of lapping waves that preceded the action.  All these were examples of impressive stagecraft that lent the production a memorable luster.  The multicultural cast was a spirited and talented lot, but the non-linear, trilingual text and episodic scene changes made convincing characterizations well-nigh impossible at times.

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Foo May Lyn as Aida Ariffin

Underpinning this cogent drama of conflict and reconciliation between magical and scientific world-views is a metaphysical commentary that makes PULAU ANTARA a very serious work indeed.  However, the heaviness is offset by a generous sprinkling of barbed witticisms.  For instance, Aida Ariffin wryly reports that some minister thinks the bridge “isn’t Islamic enough.”  And when Zainal claims the island on behalf of his race, he is challenged by the ghosts of many would-be colonists before him – which leads George (impersonating Mr Evans, the British principal of the MCKK) to assign Datuk Zainal a C-minus for history.

PULAU ANTARA is a breathtakingly ambitious cultural bridge between Japan and Malaysia which deserves to be warmly applauded, even if it leaves some theatergoers a bit confused and disoriented.

14 August 2001

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Lyrical, Topical, Moving Asian Theater

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Antares is bowled over by the youthful idealism and thematic integrity of PRISM

As a cross-cultural project for “ASEAN-Japan Exchange Year 2003”  it was decided that a young Singaporean playwright-director named Goh Boon Teck – chief artistic director of Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble – be commissioned to conjure up a dramatic work incorporating diverse talents from six countries, which would then embark on a 6-nation tour. Thus was born Prism – a polemical and poetic parable combining dance, music and theater (and multimedia too, at least, in the Tokyo production).

Funded by the Japan Foundation and Agency of Cultural Affairs, Prism was a logistically challenging joint production involving Kageboushi Theatre (Japan), Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble (Singapore), Bangkok Playhouse (Thailand), Philippines Educational Theater Association (Philippines), The Actors Studio (Malaysia), and Teater Koma (Indonesia).

Such grandiose regional schemes initiated at governmental levels do not often amount to much in artistic terms – simply because they invariably carry a hidden agenda, some long-term image-doctoring or marketing strategy.  So when something born of a high-powered cultural exchange program turns out so organic in tone, so aesthetically sound and humanly wholesome, it’s nothing short of a miracle – or at least a very wonderful surprise indeed.

Much of the credit goes to the well-chosen cast – all 14 of them, comprising Ryoichi Fukuzawa, Ryuji Mori and Tomoyuki Motomura (Japan); Teo Wee Ping and Farah Ashikin (Malaysia); Jamaluddin Latif and Naomi Srikandi (Indonesia); Duangjai Hirunsri and Pongthep Palkavong Na Ayundhya (Thailand); Raul Alfonso and Waya Legaspi Gallardo (Philippines); Nelson Chia, Patricia Toh and Gani Abdul Karim (Singapore).

Goh Boon Teck: artistic director of Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble

The performers’ zeal and dedication to the task were infectious, and their comradely cohesion as an ensemble generated a heart-warming synergy. But this might never have happened were it not for the collaborative, democratic, and playful approach to theater-making adopted by 31-year-old director Goh Boon Teck. The characters spoke Japanese, Mandarin, Thai, Tagalog, Malay and English. But, mainly, they communicated a tangible sense of genuine affection amongst themselves which facilitated a soul connection with the audience right from the start. There were moments when the joie de vivre they exuded brought me close to tears – it’s truly therapeutic to see the Inner Child emerge in disciplined adults, blurring the boundaries between work and play – and positively affirming the cultural kinship of Asian countries.

Individual characterizations were generally muted and it pretty soon became irrelevant what language was spoken  – or, rather, declaimed (as is often the case in polemical theater). They were just a bunch of decent folks, great to have as neighbors.  I was tempted not to bother turning my head to read the projected subtitles, but at the same time I wanted to follow the narrative.  This was definitely not the best way to present subtitles – but to do it right might have been way over budget for a touring production.

ImageCostume designer Ritirong Jiwakanon (Thailand) succeeded in creating an earthy pan-Asian look for the inhabitants of The Surrounding City – a 314-year-old residential community serving as a potent symbol of harmony between heaven, humanity and earth, its architecture inspired by cosmological principles represented by the Taoist Ba Gua, octagonal mirror of Self corresponding to the eight-fold path of righteousness, which forms the structural basis of the I Ching.  (An interesting digression here:  the Chinese Oracle known as I Ching or Book of Changes incorporates 64 hexagrams consisting of binary trigrams, yin and yang lines stacked in pairs of threes. When geneticists began to crack the DNA mystery in the mid-1960s, they discovered that a total of 64 codons account for all genetic permutations – precisely the number of oracular hexagrams in the ancient Book of Changes!)

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Ryoichi Fukuzawa: the
original Ultraman

The only performer who was starkly defined as a character was Ryoichi Fukuzawa, who played Aman – a corporate flunkey in an Armani suit representing the human face of the Defence Ministry’s scheme to demolish The Surrounding City and construct a weapons research facility in its place. Ryoichi’s vast experience as an actor was indeed evident (someone later whispered in my ear that his CV included being the voice of Ultra Man, a once-popular Japanese cartoon hero). Even at his most intractable as a heartless agent of the Unseen Forces of External Change, Ryoichi managed to retain an affable humanity that made him fully three-dimensional. When The Surrounding City is demolished in the spurious name of Progress, Aman’s worldview begins to crumble too, and we find ourselves rooting for his rehabilitation into a decent human being: no longer just “A Man” but Everyman.

Aman (whose name ironically means “peace” in Malay) starts out by justifying the demolition as the necessary price of progress, a sacrifice for “national security.” Then his arguments get more personal: the destruction must go on because he’s only a cog on a monstrous wheel who must obey his superior, who in turn is only taking orders from another superior, and so on up the entire length of the food chain.  Finally, he confesses that he can’t voice his feelings – despite his growing empathy with the local residents of The Surrounding City – because he has to pay his monthly bills and is therefore terrified of losing his job. His crease-proof Armani suit cannot conceal the pathetic fact that Aman is really just another white-collar wage slave, impotent against the juggernaut of institutionalized greed, tap-dancing to the ruthless rhythm of the industrial machine.

The original music and sound scheme composed by Saidah Rastam (Malaysia) was exciting, sophisticated, and simply spot on. It possessed a dynamic range that ran the gamut from sensitive and soulful to poundingly dissonant and surreal.  Her subtle interweavings of ethnomusical motifs from a wide spectrum of Asian cultures was cleverly counterpointed with avant-garde stylistic quotes from the “concrete” abstractions of Bela Bartók, Edgard Varèse and Frank Zappa – lending a classy, intelligent aural ambience to the entire production.

Good art brings us back to our senses. And Prism succeeded in doing just that. Visually, it was engaging, thanks to the Zen-minimalist set and lighting design by Koya Ito and Akira Yamaguchi (Japan). The movements were gracefully and very tastefully choreographed by Boi Sakti (Indonesia), the songs and music pleasing to the ears and to the soul, the story touching… and the performers appealingly touchable and befriendable! Indeed, all the elements in Prism fused beautifully and smelt good – fresh, uncorrupt, unjaded, fragrant in intent and spirit.

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Gani Abdul Karim from Singapore

Of course, one could exercise some critical detachment and point out minor weaknesses here and there. Some scenes came across as a bit namby-pamby: for instance, the one where Aman meets Yamada, the ageless spiritual leader who preaches respect for all religions as the way to peace and harmony. If I had any say in the matter I’d have Yamada suggest we go beyond all religions and locate the divinity within – why keep getting jerked around by doctrinal distortions and scriptural misinterpretations for generations? Nonetheless, this platitudinous concession to convention was more than compensated for by transcendent moments like the poignant funeral of the prostitute who was in truth an incarnation of Kwan Yin, goddess of mercy, on an earthly mission of redemption.

One of the central theses of Prism is that Asians need to rediscover their innate Asianness – rather than go around with blonde hair and blue contact lenses. This implies that the evils of crass consumerism and disposable culture stem from being Coca-colonized by Western ideas – a trite oversimplification at best, and one that reinforces rather than bridges the proverbial divide betwixt East and West. In a spherical world, if you keep going East you end up bumping into yourself from the West. So is the problem merely a clash of Asian and Caucasian perspectives? Or is it really a global issue concerning all of humanity?

Asia has spawned its quota of mad emperors and bloodthirsty megalomaniacs. Indeed, Asia has been there, done that, now what? Arrogance, greed and oppression are not qualities defined by geography, ethnicity, or ideological imprints. The root of our disconnection from organic wisdom and Mother Nature lies beyond superficial cultural differences. Atavistic retreat into traditionalism isn’t a viable solution either – but, then, we can’t expect all the answers neatly packaged into a single dramatized parable. 

Prism poses passionately cogent questions and does so on a compassionate level. It addresses the heart rather than merely the mind. The mere fact that twenty individuals from six Asian countries were able to collaborate on such a significant cross-cultural experiment – and achieve such inspiring artistic results – more than vindicates the Japan Foundation’s noble aim of fruitful interaction and deeper friendships among close neighbors. By initiating such cultural collaborations, the Japanese have convincingly demonstrated their maturity of vision. It would be laudable indeed if they decide henceforth to concentrate on the sponsorship of beautiful, creative works like Prism – instead of reverting to “Amanism” and funding ugly, destructive projects like the proposed Kelau Dam.

9 December 2003

 

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