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Clamorous and Clever Clams

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vagina_marathon1Antares is tickled pink by THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES

“Evolution began with Eve when she took the first bite of the forbidden fruit.” ~ A.N. Onymus (actually I just made it up)

My mind is exploding with ribald puns after watching Joanna Bessey, Jerrica Lai and Renuka Veerasingam hurl themselves holeheartedly… I mean wholeheartedly… into Hari Azizan’s boisterous dramatization of Eve Ensler’s phenomenally contagious Vagina Monologues. At the Actors Studio Box (where else?) – under the aegis of the Director’s Workshop program conducted by Krishen Jit and Joe Hasham – novice directors like Hari Azizan have found a dynamic springboard from which to launch themselves into a promising new career in professional theater.

The Return of the Goddess has long been prophesied and now she is back and angry as hell!

Angry with the outrageous oppression of the feminine, the intuitive, the emotional, the artistic and nurturing aspects of the Life Force by a senescent but still warlike patriarchy. Angry with the hypocrisy and double standards that allow satyrs to be hailed as conquering heroes while nymphs are labeled whores and sluts. Angry with the patriarch’s schizophrenic fear of and fascination with sex, which has led to the association of female sexuality with shame, the commercial exploitation of man-made taboos, and the public denial of private pleasures.

Home truths are often generalizations that come across as simplistic when expressed in language. However, dance and poetry are ambiguous and fluid enough to stir the passionate imagination into an evolutionary leap of courage, born of despair and generations of quiet suffering. And it is through Eve Ensler’s polemical poetry and Judimar Monfils’s evocative choreography that Hari Azizan has chosen to voice her rebellion on behalf of the sheeplike silent majority of Muslim women who accept their submission without a whimper of protest.

Only four of Ms Ensler’s original monologues were selected for this 60-minute dramatization. Excerpts from esoteric publications like an academic dissertation on Gender, Culture and Religion (by Noraini Othman and Cecilia Ng) and Siti Zulaikhan Mohd Nor’s Kedudukan dan Peranan Wanita dalam Islam (“The Role and Responsibility of Women In Islam”) were inserted as text fragments.

The three actresses were in fine feline form as they launched into their tightly orchestrated business of confrontation, provocation, and group therapy. Ms Bessey was in admirable control of her delectable body and voice; Ms Lai, intense and wonderfully uninhibited, generously gave her all; but Ms Veerasingam was the bravest one, in view of her relative inexperience on stage (this is only her third public outing) and the fact that Indian girls generally have a harder fight against deeply ingrained cultural traditions when it comes to voicing controversial issues. A special round of applause for Mr and Mrs Veerasingam, Renuka’s extraordinary parents, for supporting their daughter’s bold venture into self-liberation!

The Mystery of Mysteries, reverently named al ghaib in Arabic, and worshiped as the Vesica piscis (the fishy vessel) in esoteric Christianity has long been the source of inspiration and the brunt of risque jokes. What Eve Ensler has done for the vagina – and the raising of planetary awareness through her V-Day Campaign about the brute violence that the rampant (and ever insecure) male ego has inflicted on women for thousands of years deserves much more than an Obie award.

Much as I enjoyed the performance and lauded the cogency and timeliness of the cause, I had reservations about a few stylistic elements that the young director seems to have borrowed from Five Arts productions like Skin Trilogy and Family. The angst-ridden melodramatization occasionally verged on hysteria, lending the poetry a militant, strident edge that grated unnecessarily. But in a close-minded, tight-lipped culture such as we have in Malaysia, subtlety may be a luxury accessible only to the well-heeled. As a female member of the audience remarked afterwards: “I didn’t really like the show but I’m pretty glad I saw it.”

In the final analysis, I found The Vagina Monologues vastly enjoyable and supercharged with meaning. And judging from the packed houses it has drawn since its preview, KL theatergoers are certainly titillated by the promise of anything that pushes the envelope – well, in this case, the sheath – in terms of self-expression. Never before have local audiences been treated to the sight of three women sitting on the floor with their legs wide open, spouting rude words while stitching up their labia with imaginary needles and thread.

All power to the Almighty Chibai, the Evermoist Cunt of Artistic Innovation, the Glorious Pudendum of Cultural Breakthroughs, the Numinous Nonok of Novelty that restructures and revitalizes the human condition.

If you haven’t yet seen The Vagina Monologues make sure you get to The Actors Studio Box early so you won’t miss James Lee’s hilarious video prologue. That alone is perhaps worth the effort of driving through KL traffic to catch the play.

26 January 2002

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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]

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

DARKNESS & DOUBT ON A DOUBLE BILL

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Huzir Sulaiman & Joanna Bessey

The venerable Krishen Jit

THE OTHER ‑ a double bill presented by Five Arts Centre and directed by the venerable Krishen Jit ‑ lasted just slightly over an hour. But I’m sure nobody felt shortchanged by the brevity of the two monologues performed by the always impressive Huzir Sulaiman and the immensely gifted Joanna Bessey. The intensity of their performances more than made up for the textual obscurity of Huzir’s self‑penned tirade of a dead patriarch in THE SMELL OF LANGUAGE; and the unfulfilled promise of Joanna’s quirky dramatization of Tim Toyama’s “Karmatic Convergence” in WHO’S LOONEY, MAN?

Let’s take Huzir first: all through the routine I found myself wondering what could have inspired the man to embark on such a singularly highbrow exercise in arts festival fringe theatrics. Had he inadvertently ingested some fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) before sitting down to craft this high‑velocity, high‑vocabulary experiment in unmitigated verbosity? And was his runaway express train delivery calculated to prove beyond all doubt that Huzir is in possession of the fastest and best‑trained tongue in the Asia‑Pacific Rim? Or was he actually afraid of boring his audiences if he stretched his monologue by another ten minutes?

The text itself was dense and florid, chock‑a‑block as it was with sinister insinuations and suggestive references to topical events and political villains. The atmosphere he conjured ‑ merely by standing in one spot and moving his arms alternately like a marionette and mutant octopus while perspiring profusely in a double‑breasted suit ‑ was dark, macabre, and oppressive. It hinted at arcane metaphysical revelations quite beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. (Huzir’s sinfully priapic syntax is obviously contagious.) I confess I left The Actors Studio Box none the wiser about the ultimate meaning of life or death.

Of course defler was showing off again; but amidst such an endless ocean of mediocrity, Huzir Sulaiman continues to shine like a beacon even when he seems to be sneering at his audience. This time around he was impersonating Peter Ustinov as Yahweh ‑ in a script concocted by Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jorge Luis Borges.

Special mention must be made of the extremely effective lighting by Mac Chan and the quintessentially elegant set by Carolyn Lau. And the live “harpsichord” overture was a particularly classy touch.

Darkness & Doubt

WHO’S LOONEY, MAN? explores the genetic vagaries of hybridization ‑ the blessing and curse of being a “karmatic convergence” of Asian and European. The fine line between fit and misfit, clairvoyance and cloud cuckoo land, this world and the other.

Joanna Bessey, the youngest and most promising serious actress in the country, deserves the heartiest applause for the authenticity she invests in her performance. Another year or two on the boards will see her attaining full mastery of her craft, but for now, the delectable Ms Bessey does very nicely, thank you. True, more than once, it appeared that she was trying a little too hard. For the most part, however, she was pretty much up to scratch.

Bits of the text seemed patchy: there were puzzling divergences and details that made me lose the narrative thread. She starts out telling us about a girl child born to an English father and a Malay mother; then frenetically fleshes out the saga of a Chinese and Irish genetic convergence in Singapore. I was distracted by repeated references to a mental hospital in Woodlands (surely she meant Woodbridge?) There were poster‑sized drawings and charts scattered about the stage floor ‑ but these were hardly utilized to their full potential.

Tim Toyama, Japanese American
playwright/producer

There were quite a few epiphanous moments. Joanna’s fresh‑faced beauty and her focused portrayal of a confusion born of transcontinental fusion made the time pass quickly. And yet so much more might have emerged, one feels, if the text had been a tad less “post‑colonial.” It was a fairly well‑constructed internal monologue, but perhaps that was its weakness, too. Oftimes it came across on a purely literary level and I felt I was in the British Council listening to earnest poetry read with unnecessary earnestness. I haven’t heard of Tim Toyama but I strongly suspect he’s an academic poet who’s been published in some tediously self‑conscious cross-cultural anthology of young writers. Many in the audience must have wished there was some hard copy to take home for careful scrutiny; why not?

THE OTHER was a celebration of words and the ideas they conceal or reveal. But as neither text was on sale in the foyer, I’ll probably never know… unless I run into Ms Bessey at the Eurasian Club (a most unlikely prospect, as I’ve never set foot there).

25 March 2000

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