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Burrrp… Simply Sedap!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



























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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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
















Oscar Wilde (1854~1900)

Antares is provoked by GROSS INDECENCY


Moises Kaufman

Moises Kaufman’s multi-perspective courtroom drama, GROSS INDECENCY: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, was pulling in the crowds and winning the Critics’ Choice award for best play of 1998 – even as Malaysians were being titillated or outraged by their very own “Trial of the Century.”

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was found guilty of “gross immorality” and sentenced to two years’ hard labor at Reading Gaol.  A little over a century later, Anwar Ibrahim was accused of sodomy (among other offences), found guilty by patently partisan judges, and sentenced to fifteen years in Sungai Buloh Prison.  Anwar’s claim that there was a high-level conspiracy to topple him was meticulously ignored.

Wilde was a literary peacock and iconoclast; Anwar an orator and politician, but what both men had in common were their high public profiles, their growing influence on youth, and the perceived threat they represented to the Status Quo.  That both were accused of sodomy (“unnatural practices” or “sex against the natural order”) is indeed revealing.  For centuries, abstinence and celibacy in sexual matters had been promoted as godly virtues – but heterosexual sex within the legally, socially, or religiously sanctioned precincts of marriage was accepted (if only in the interest of procreation).


Rey Buono

And yet snide reports of rampant pederasty within priestly, public school, and even parliamentary circles were hardly uncommon.  Buggery, after all, goes back as far as the Spartan Army and was a fact of Athenian and Roman life.  Socrates himself, while married to Xanthippe, had a passionate affair with an athletic and youthful male disciple named Alcibiades, and every self-respecting Roman senator had his favorite catamite.  And in Victorian England, closet homosexuality had reached near epidemic proportions, so much so that the day after Oscar Wilde was sentenced, more than 600 scions of the upper crust caught the boat to Calais.

Indeed, the nation was plagued by nasty rumors of buggery and skulduggery in high places to the extent that it became necessary to make a public example of Wilde, if only to reassure voters that all was well with the Empire.


Jit Murad

Kaufman’s cunningly crafted script is a collage of text gleaned from news clippings, private letters, journal entries, original trial transcripts, and personal memoirs.  Bringing the philosophical and political subtext of Wilde’s trials and tribulations to dynamic life through ten actors, all male, and making it work as post-Brechtian theater was indeed a dramaturgical challenge that Kaufman met with aplomb.

The Instant Café Theatre production of GROSS INDECENCY directed by Rey Buono was staged in a nightclub (O*range), which effectively blurred the boundaries between actors and audience while adding a surreal edge to the proceedings.  Buono is to be heartily commended first of all for introducing KL audiences to this bitingly topical play; and for his confident, intelligent directorial hand, especially in working with the multi-tiered space; and lastly but not least for his illuminating program notes.


Reza Zainal Abidin

The cast was, on the whole, very well chosen, but I was particularly impressed by the tremendous conviction Reza Zainal Abidin brought to his multiple rôles of Charles Parker and the Judge, and especially his queenly cameo of Victoria Regina.  Chacko Vadaketh excelled as Sir Edward Clarke, Wilde’s attorney (and little wonder, as Vadaketh was formerly a practicing lawyer from a prominent legal family).

As the rough-and-ready Marquess of Queensbury and a couple of other characters, Patrick Teoh turned in a powerful performance with a highly charged dynamic between him and his rebellious son Lord Alfred Douglas, elegantly portrayed by Chowee Leow.  To say that Edwin R. Sumun, Rashid Salleh, Shamser, Ghafir Akbar, and Kurt Crocker (as the academic pseudo, Martin Taylor) did justice to their rôles may be saying too little, but each certainly deserved an individual round of applause.


Patrick Teoh

Which leads us to the casting of Jit Murad as Oscar Wilde.  I must admit I am still undecided about this pivotal element of Buono’s directorial vision.  Murad, a fabulous and much admired actor and playwright, was to many the obvious choice for Oscar.  After all, they appear to have much in common: both are known for their insouciant charm, irrepressible wit, and effervescent intelligence.  Indeed, there are some who regard Jit Murad as a Malaysian Oscar Wilde.  Perhaps it was the very obviousness of this casting option which, in the end, gave rise to a certain incongruity that subtly undermined the dramatic impact and intellectual gravity of the production.  Murad is such a distinctive personality in his own right that what transpired on stage was ‘The Three Trials of Jit Murad’ – not Oscar Wilde.


Chacko Vadaketh

The aesthetic ethos embodied in the life and work of Oscar Wilde raised very important questions about art versus politics; private versus public mores; individual liberty versus the conformative forces of a hypocritical society.  To a large extent, Buono succeeded in spellbinding the KL audience with a courtroom spectacle that was in no part dull or slow-moving – indeed it was rather like déjà vu to anyone who has been following the farcical trials of Anwar Ibrahim.  In this instance, Murad’s eternally youthful good looks (and his exaggeratedly camp mannerisms) made his Wilde a bit too much of a flippant fop to be taken seriously as an aesthetic revolutionary or intellectual beacon.  The lightness of his physical being gave the lie to the weightiness of the philosophical cross Wilde had to bear.  I can’t help thinking that Murad would have been absolutely perfect cast as “Bosie” (Lord Alfred Douglas).

I emerged into the incandescent glow of the giant corncobs known as the Petronas Twin Towers, glad to have been part of this significant moment in local theater – when it appeared that the discreet but influential gay community of Kuala Lumpur had at last come together and declared their defiance of the fatwa against homosexuality implied in the vicious persecution of the erstwhile deputy prime minister for alleged acts of “gross indecency.”

And yet, will this event lead to the early release of Anwar Ibrahim and the dawn of a new, more enlightened, more compassionate era in Malaysian public life?  Or is all art quite useless, as Wilde himself incisively averred?

2 October 2001

Would You Like To Be Jit Murad?

Jit Murad: it must be the Welsh in him!

Antares speculates on how it might feel to be a fan hit by Jit’s wit and wisdom 

Would I like to be Jit Murad? Sure, for a few weeks at least, why not? I saw a movie called Being John Malkovich, in which a puppeteer finds a way to take over actor Malkovich from within, a novel twist on spirit possession and body-snatching. Now imagine there’s a vortex that leads directly into Jit Murad’s interior.

The moment you find yourself inside Jit’s skin you’ll feel a buzz in your head. After a while you’ll realize it’s only the crackle and hum of synapses firing away at near lightspeed. Whereas your “average” flat-footed human is content to plod up and down linear mental pavements with a 5,000-word (or, at best, 15,000-word) vocabulary, Jit flies loop-the-loops around the multidimensional, ideational cosmos in his 150,000-word Lexicon Mk VII – and has the option of coining his own words, as and when the need arises, in at least three languages (or a wacky combination thereof).

Indeed, Jit’s verbal agility is a gift he employs to great advantage in his chosen career as actor, raconteur, playwright, philosopher and social commentator. A champion debater of the venerable Victoria Institution in his early youth – with Jit, one can only describe the different stages of his life as early, middle, or late youth – this puckish Peter Pan of Malaysian theater is a true tribal griot who has outgrown tribalistic concerns.

What’s a griot? The antithesis of a grinch, of course. The world is a wayang kulit punch-and-judy show in which the hearts and souls of the hoi polloi are perpetually fought over between griots and grinches. Whilst griots seek to educate, liberate and heal by captivating us (with song-and-dance and storytelling), grinches are forever trying to cast a hypnotic spell of anxiety over us and make us slavishly hand over our money and power, holding us captive, generation after generation.

Academia, bureaucracy, politics, public relations, international espionage, and law enforcement are the sort of domains where grinches lurk (that’s right, there’s always a City Hall grinch or two in the theater, waiting to pounce on every “offensive” word and use it as an excuse to ban the production).

You’ll find a lot of griots in the arts, especially the performing arts, from obscure street buskers to celebrity entertainers at glitzy functions. Jit Murad has earned himself a well-deserved place among the local celebrities – but he’s pretty much the same lovable Jit I first met in the mid-1980s when he appeared (with Liza Othman and Jo Kukathas) in Thor Kah Hoong’s Caught In The Middle. He subsequently played my son in Maureen Ten’s For The Time Being in 1988 – and from then on there was no stopping him.


Jit Murad: mild-mannered
but Wilde at heart

Jit Hits The Fan, his current comic monologue at the Actors Studio, Bangsar, was a last-minute production, a rabbit out of a magician’s hat. Comedy Court canceled their scheduled slot and Jit was roped in to do a stand-up comedy routine. A lot of it is ad-libbed, but there’s a beautiful internal structure to his spiel which indicates that he has sketched out the entire show in his head and committed it to memory. It’s simply breathtaking the way a man with only a microphone and a well-tuned voice can hold everyone spellbound for close to an hour (okay, a man and a hairstylist named René Choy) – and make us laugh so heartily and effortlessly just by talking about himself. Even when he’s being narcissistic and self-indulgent, he is amusingly so, and instantly forgiven.

There was really no need to get a fellow named Scott to introduce Jit Murad and “warm up” the audience with a best-forgotten bit of lame-brained humor, but by the end of the show, nobody cared anyway – everyone went home smiling. Maybe Jit just liked his all-American good looks; at any rate, Scott did a great job of “lowering the bar” and helping Jit pass with flying colors.

Over the years, Jit Murad has honed his performance skills to a degree that will gain him ready admittance to the Universal Comedy Hall of Fame, taking his place amongst established names like Woody Allen, Peter Ustinov, Lenny Bruce, Severn Darden, Chris Rush, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, and Eddie Murphy.

Unfortunately, in Malaysia we’re so preoccupied with promoting the mediocre and the banal that we seem to have overlooked everything with genuine export potential. The problem, perhaps, is that everything with export potential is vastly more intelligent than the powers-that-be and therefore invariably comes across as being a threat to the political status quo.

Take, for instance, the case of the Instant Café Theatre: what a crying shame that this astonishingly talented crew has yet to have local television exposure. Instead, City Hall recently made an idiotic attempt to ban them!  In a mature, egoically secure cultural context, ICT would be as big a hit as Monty Python in Britain or Saturday Night Live in the U.S. – and just as exportable around the world.

ImageAnd Jit Murad wouldn’t be voicing his anxiety that only 12 tickets had been reserved for the second performance. Well, his routine is so cool, so breezy, and so brilliant –anyone careless enough (or broke enough) to miss it ought to be given a second chance to view it on DVD or VCD. So where have all our local entrepreneurs gone? Jit lamented the fact that he can’t even take his show on the road – except, perhaps, to Ipoh and Penang. Aren’t there people in Malacca, Seremban, Dungun, Alor Setar, Teluk Intan, Johore Baru, Kota Bharu, Kuala Kubu Bharu, and Kuantan with brains – and a few bucks to spare towards the comic stimulation thereof?

As a stand-up comedian, Jit’s inherent compassion and lightness of touch gives him licence to play court jester throughout the known universe – I can see him charming the socks off, and doubling up in helpless mirth, audiences in heaven as well as in hell. And we all know Malaysia is strategically located between those extremes.

11 September 2003



Marvelous Marathon of Mirth

Harith Iskandar & Afdlin Shauki: fat funny fellows

Antares splits his sides (and meets old friends) at ACTORLYMPICS 

Oh, it’s good to spend a Sunday afternoon guffawing non-stop (though 150 minutes did seem a bit excessive towards the end). With a suave Patrick Teoh playing emcee or umpire, Afdlin Shauki, Harith Iskandar, Jit Murad, Jo Kukathas, Nell Ng, and Zahim Albakri treated KL audiences to another rousing round of theater sports (where everything is improvised).


Nell Ng & Afdlin Shauki in action

They were absolutely brilliant, and you’d have to be a dullard to disagree. Bringing a whole new meaning to “thinking on your feet,” they winged it at high altitude, skydiving over Bangsar and taking the mickey out of the mouse. They performed on raw instinct, propelled by pure talent, driven by sheer wit. They had the audience completely enthralled and eating out of their hands. It’s tempting to try and recapture some of the highlights in a review, but you really had to be there to appreciate the inspired inanity of the performances.

(Okay, just to give you a taste of the hysterical goings-on: one event had the cast divided into two teams. Random props chosen by the backstage crew were handed to each team and they had to improvise short scenes using these props. A red plastic stool is offered to one team. Within 3 seconds, they’re improvising a scene at a clinic with the doctor saying: “Good! I see you’ve brought a stool sample!” That sort of thing. Virtually impossible to translate into mere words…)

Ladies and gentlemen, here are a few mutant Malaysians equipped with high-speed data-processing circuits, oodles of charisma and, most importantly, a healthy sense of humor and the ability to laugh at themselves. I’d entrust the entire country to their moisturized and slippery hands. Indeed, I’m proud to have witnessed their ascension to world-class comedy status.


Afdlin Shauki

Afdlin Shauki first caught the public eye around 1990 when he starred in a self-penned production directed by Joe Hasham. It was evident even then that he was some sort of prodigy in the mode of John Belushi. He had enough promise as a singer to get signed up by Roslan Aziz along with Zainal Abidin and Amir Yussof. He honed his comedic skills in a series of Instant Café Theatre revues and was a great success in Huzir Sulaiman’s hit musical, Hip-Hopera. Recently he was seen as one of Mongkut’s courtiers in the movie, Anna and The King. For a while he toured with his R&B group, Acidiz, and recorded on his own label, Acid Rain, in between acting and directing engagements. Afdlin is a bona fide Malaysian showbiz success story and has never been known to make a foolish move [at least not until the year 2012, when he decided, much to my distress, to join a racist rightwing political party].

I remember Harith Iskandar’s early ventures into stand-up comedy at All That Jazz when he’d go on stage and try out his routine between sets by Rafique Rashid. It was obvious the man had the wherewithal to make it big in comedy. Later he tried his hand at filmmaking and directed Ella and Hans Isaac in a Malay feature called Hanya Kawan. As to be expected, Harith was cast as a neanderthal warrior in Anna and The King. He’s physically big but mentally agile and his comedic body language and timing are spot on.


The one & only Jit Murad

There was a lady in the audience who told me it was her second time at the show, and she’d brought her family along. “I came to see Jit Murad,” she sighed, “I just love Jit!” I bet she wasn’t the only one who’s enamored of Jit’s inimitable charm and wit. I met Jit Murad back in the mid-1980s when he made his KL stage debut in Thor Kah Hoong’s seminal stage sitcom, Caught In The Middle. A couple of years later he played my son in Maureen Ten’s whimsical For The Time Being. Zahim Albakri was making his KL stage debut, too, as an angel assisting my transition from the physical world. Soon, Jit and Zahim were regularly seen on TV in a whole slew of Malay dramas.

Not surprising, as there was always a gaggle of giggly schoolgirls waiting outside the dressing room for Jit and Zahim at the end of each performance. No one had the heart to tell these girls they didn’t stand a chance in heaven of dating these pretty lads. When the Instant Café Theatre was inaugurated in 1989, Jit and Zahim were among the founder members, along with Jo Kukathas and Andrew Leci. Jit has since made a name for himself as a playwright, while Zahim branched out into directing with great success.


Jo Kukathas

Ms Kukathas’s illustrious theater career warrants a 5,000-word article. She was an English teacher when I first met her through one of her colleagues. The next thing I knew, she was appearing in Caught In The Middle which is how she connected with Jit and Zahim. The enduring success of the Instant Café Theatre is largely due to Ms Kukathas’s superhuman drive and tenacity.

A few days before Actorlympics opened, she was hospitalized with bronchitis. I suppose that was when Zahim was roped in, just in case, but Jo Kukathas is such a trooper, she simply had to see it through. No one would have guessed she wasn’t in top physical form throughout the strenuous proceedings. That’s what I call dedication, though some might deem it a form of divine madness.

Nell Ng was playing bit parts only a few years ago, but her intensity and focus were clearly evident. And so were her consummate skills as a comedienne. She soon became a regular member of the Instant Café Theatre and confidently held her own among the veterans. For a while she worked the graveyard shift at a radio station as a deejay until she was offered a juicy rôle in a Singapore TV sitcom series. Baby star Nell Ng will be making her directorial debut in a series of skits produced by Faridah Merican and performed by a group of acting students.


Patrick Teoh

Patrick Teoh I’ve known for over a quarter century when he was a producer with Rediffusion. Back then I kept urging him to get involved in theater and he’d shrug and say, “Don’t have the nerve, lah!” These days you can’t keep the man off the boards and a good thing too – he’s an absolute gem on stage, as well as on the screen!

These amazing talents deserve their own TV station, film company,  recording studio, theater, and unlimited funding… or, at least, no more reactionary bureaucratic impediments. We’d soon be exporting the best that Malaysia has to offer in the way of cultural artifacts. This is no laughing matter. The Beatles were awarded Orders of the British Empire (OBEs) for boosting the British economy during the 1960s. The fact that the Fab Four said, “Thanks, but no thanks!” and promptly returned their medals to the Queen is quite beside the point.

30 April 2002

Theater of the ARTiculate


Yasmina Reza: cerebral chic

“Many people confuse information and meaning, which leads to a rather disturbing paradox: Our society has come to place an enormous value on information even though information itself can tell us nothing about value.” – Erik Davis in Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (1998)

Yasmina Reza is an exotic and gifted actress, novelist, and playwright.  Of Jewish-Hungarian parentage but domiciled in Paris, her cerebral tragicomedy of manners, Art, has won many coveted awards since it opened in 1994.  At 42 Ms Reza is undoubtedly a big-time international success.  She’s articulate, intelligent, poised and elegant – and stars like Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino clamor for rôles in her plays.


Huzir Sulaiman

Art is decidedly a virtuoso play written for virtuoso performers.  Little wonder that local virtuoso Huzir Sulaiman decided to bring the play to KL audiences through his Straits Theatre Company, despite stiff performance royalties for staging current mainstream boxoffice hits.  It was a great opportunity to bring together the combined acting talents of three of Malaysia’s most outstanding young actors – Jit Murad, Zahim Albakri, and Huzir himself – under the sure (but by now predictable) hand of veteran director Krishen Jit whose task was certainly made easier by the fine quality of his cast.


Zahim Albakri

As Serge, the dermatologist with upper-crust aspirations and enough ready cash to splurge on avant-garde art, Zahim Albakri was in superb form.  His was an affable, believable Serge – someone you might actually have met last week at a Kenny Hills dinner party.  Jit Murad as Marc, an acerbic, well-read aeronautical engineer with aesthetic dyspepsia, turned in an interesting performance – not that he wasn’t excellent, as usual, but there was a complex psychodynamic undercurrent between him and Zahim that at times exceeded their stage personas.  Yvan, a genial, ne’er-do-well Everyman marrying into the stationery business, was played to great comedic effect by the masterful Huzir Sulaiman.  The strength of Yasmina Reza’s play is, of course, the incredibly witty dialogue – brilliantly translated into English by that master playwright Christopher Hampton (who also translated Les Liaisons Dangereuses, recently staged in KL by The Actors Studio).

The Straits Theatre Company production of Art was unpretentious – with a functional, minimalist set by Paul Lau and quietly supportive lighting by Bernard Chauly Jr, enlivened by an aurally stimulating selection of musical inserts ear-picked by Huzir Sulaiman.  A “white” painting by Richard “Antrios” Lau (with barely discernible diagonal and horizontal lines in ever-so-subtle “greys” and “yellows”) is central to the entire premise of the play.  For what it’s worth, someone actually bought the canvas for an undisclosed amount after the play ended its run at the K.R. Soma Auditorium. Life imitates Art, I suppose.


Jit Murad

The intricate psychodynamics of this 3-man tour de force of late 20th-century neo-existentialist drama has provoked a flood of literary and philosophical commentary (a fascinating analysis by the primitive-modernist painter Max Podstolski can be accessed here).

Like the “white” painting itself, Yasmina Reza’s inspired musings on the nature of friendships, the meaning and value of cultural artifacts, and the existential effeteness of our consumerist society bear many levels of interpretation.  The crafty playwright effectively blurs the lines between the profound and the trivial, the serious and the absurd, the eternal and the ephemeral.

Was it the most stimulating or thought-provoking play I’d ever seen?  Arguably not.  But from the moment Art began I was sucked into an irresistible vortex of pure enjoyment that reminded me that the ultimate value of theater is its power to educate and provoke through sheer entertainment.

28 June 2001

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