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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

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Omedetou Gozaimasu, Joe & Faridah!

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Rashomon Gate in Kyoto

Antares congratulates Actors Studio on their triumphant production of RASHOMON

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Faridah Merican, director

Ten days before Rashomon opened, a horrendous flash flood wiped out the Actors Studio’s Plaza Putra facilities: two theaters, the Actors Studio Academy, the Coffee Shoppe, and Joe Hasham’s chic new office. However, none of this appeared to have dampened their spirits as Faridah Merican personally welcomed the first night audience to her milestone directorial effort.

“Milestone” in that Faridah Merican’s realization of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s classic short story (to a script intelligently adapted by Joe Hasham) proved impressive on many fronts – aesthetic, dramaturgical, and the purely technical – and took Malaysian stagecraft to a new level of professionalism.

Hasham’s script adaptation was largely inspired by a close study of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film version of Rashomon.

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Bernard Goh, music director

The cinematic influence was further underscored by the use of a live orchestra playing what was pretty much a full-scale “soundtrack” to the action. The original music composed by Bernard Goh and Deborah Tee was artfully interpreted by Gideon on guitar, Yii Kah Hoe on flute and shakuhachi, Tay Chiew Lee on keyboard, and Jimmy Ch’ng on percussion. Indeed, the passion, precision, and sheer beauty of the orchestra’s performance was so outstanding they almost stole the show from the actors. I’d gladly sit through Rashomon a couple more times just to enjoy the music.

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Ramli Hassan
as Tajomoru

Working with a highly accomplished cast, Faridah was free to focus on maintaining the dramatic flow and credibility of the characterizations. Ramli Hassan was a natural choice for the charismatic rôle of the bandit Tajomoru. He brought to the character an animal magnetism that aptly personified the id – instinctual, cunning, dangerous, yet not without a certain feral innocence and candor.

Merissa Teh was absolutely convincing as the Wife. Deceptively delicate, but fully aware of her feminine power, she portrayed the adaptability and fluidity of the lifeforce when the brittle shell of social decorum and cultural conditioning is cracked. One might even surmise that the Wife manifested her own rape in order to free her wild spirit from the sterile bonds of a passionless marriage. We are indeed blessed to have Merissa Teh grace the local stage with her unassuming beauty and impeccable talent as an actress

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Ari Ratos as the Samurai

The Samurai represented the last vestiges of a feudal tradition – desperately clinging to his dignity and manhood against the unpredictable ravages of swiftly changing circumstances. To this challenging rôle, Ari Ratos brought an extraordinary integrity and humanity. Such is his skill as an actor that even as we empathized with the Samurai’s misfortune, we secretly rejoiced at his undoing, which symbolized the collapse of rigid tradition, of law and order, and the façade of respectability.

Lee Swee Keong’s lyrical movements – and the fact that he speaks exclusively in Mandarin – defines the Monk as some sort of superego, attempting to extract clarity, truth, and unity from the morass of contradictory data that constitutes the samsaric world.  A consummate dancer trained in buto, Swee Keong’s intense dedication to his craft stands him in equally good stead as an actor. His noble bearing and serene demeanor lent credence to his spiritual authority and it mattered little that one may not have understood his lines, so clearly focused was his body language.

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Lee Swee Keong as the Monk

By the play’s end it becomes clear that all the main characters – the Bandit, the Wife, the Samurai, and the Monk – are really integral aspects of the human psyche in a dynamic interplay of perspectives.  Akutagawa’s detachment from his characters gives the lie to the validity of an “objective” viewpoint. Reality is ultimately a subjective experience – and only the Monk’s spiritual grounding can encompass the drama and confusion of the sensory world and transcend it all. Of course, this is merely one way to interpret the multi-layered Rashomon – a work that undermines all notions of certainty while celebrating the infinite complexity and exquisite vulnerability of the human psyche. The Samurai and his Wife represent, perhaps, the male and female aspects of the ego.

The Woodcutter – a sort of Everyman polarized between truth and falsity – was admirably played by Terence Swampillai, who brought a tangible organicity and warmth to the character. Indeed, Swampillai’s performance was nothing short of award-winning, reminding us that there is truly no such thing as a small rôle – only great or indifferent acting.

I was surprised to find in the program no biographical reference to Caecar Chong – whose animated performance as the Medium and as an overzealous law enforcement officer was a memorable dramatic highlight. His exuberance injected high-octane energy into the proceedings and contributed significantly to the dynamic flow. As the second woodcutter, Mark Wong was unremarkable but did a sufficiently good job so as not to attract undue attention.

The special part of the Gatekeeper was inserted to serve as a sort of “Japanese chorus” cum narrator. Gan Hui Yee’s physical movements were indeed wonderful to behold, but her difficulties with English diction (coming as she does from a Chinese theater background) were a bit distracting in the opening scene. Fortunately, she eventually warmed up and began projecting her voice much better.

One suspects that the Monk’s two disciples (and lantern-bearers) were included mainly for visual effect. Nonetheless, in these auxiliary rôles, Kiea Kuan Nam and Ian Yang gave their best, especially in the choreographed sequences. I don’t usually comment on the costume design (unless it sticks out like a sore thumb), but in this instance, Cinzia Ciaramicoli’s exquisite taste and flair made the performers’ outfits an integral part of the lush visual experience.

Beautifully lit by the award-winning Mac Chan, the splendid set was conceived and constructed by a team comprising Actors Studio general manager Teoh Ming Jin, special effects expert K.L. Cheah, and the director herself. The clever use of bamboo and rear-projected foliage imagery effectively created the forest scenes; but I was most impressed by the thunderstorm effects which featured real water cascading through holes in a bamboo rafter into a hidden trough – leading a member of the audience to quip during the intermission: “Looks like Joe and Faridah are trying to drown THREE theaters!”

I left the theater elated by the overall excellence of the production and moved by the Actors Studio’s resilient spirit – Joe and Faridah’s capacity to seize yet another artistic triumph from the face of such recent tragedy.

24 June 2003

Rashomon received Boh Cameronian Arts Awards for Best Costume Design, Best Set Design, Best Original Music, and Best Lighting.

Review of Rashomon by Choy Su-Ling

 

AMAH HITS THE MARK BEAUTIFULLY

Antares salutes the theatrical triumph of Mark Beau de Silva’s STORIES FOR AMAH  

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Joe Hasham: nominated
Best Director

No one – except perhaps for his ex-policeman father who was in the audience – was gladder than I for Mark Beau de Silva at the end of Stories for Amah, the prolific 23-year-old’s third play within the space of a year.  This time around what we got was a soul-satisfying serving of highly palatable Malaysian theater – thanks to a superb cast and the very capable direction of Joe Hasham, who seemed particularly pleased with how it all turned out. Hasham’s confident hand and mature directorial vision were precisely what was needed to shape the material into a seamless, smooth-flowing dramatic whole.

The text was written mostly in Manglish with a liberal smattering of Hokkien (the dialect Mark grew up speaking with his maternal grandmother, fondly addressed as Amah). Although the protagonist was a Chinese Eurasian girl named Ruth de Souza, it was fairly obvious that the play was largely based on the playwright’s own experience of growing up as a “lain-lain” – which is how Malaysian bureaucracy classifies those not of Malay, Chinese, or Indian ethnicity.

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Mew Chang Tsing:
nominated Best Actress

What came across most poignantly was the innocence and honesty of the narrative – and for this we have to thank and applaud the consummate performance of Mew Chang Tsing as Ruth. Dancer-choreographer Mew (who is artistic director of  Rivergrass Dance Theatre) brought to her pivotal rôle a freshness, purity, and angelic charisma that effectively stole the audience’s heart right from the start.

It would have been so easy for her to have milked the script for melodrama and pathos, but her dancer’s intuition, sensitivity, and perfect control kept the tears and laughter authentic, and touched us all to the core.

Mew was beautifully supported by the rest of the cast, who each contributed generously to the overall organicity of the stories as they unfolded. Every single one of them was memorably true to character, a sure sign that the casting was exceptionally well considered.

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Ben Tan

Merissa Teh was sublime as Mama (even if it took a major stretch of imagination to picture her “lying in front of the TV like some fat pig” in view of her slender and winsome appeal). Kennedy John Michael’s Papa was solidly archetypal and testosterone-charged; his portrayal of patriarchal ire is guaranteed to make anyone allergic to mathematics, or at least despotic father figures. Sabera Shaik was in fine comic fettle as Aunty Liza and the Headmistress; and Ben Tan’s cool versatility as the afro-wigged Uncle Zack and a whole slew of other male characters was indeed masterful.

Low Ngai Yuen’s down-to-earth Aunty Sien was well crafted and credible, while the young boys Andrew and James (winningly portrayed by Carina Ong and Juliana Ibrahim) were a delight to watch. But most heartwarming of all was Karen Chin’s magnificent Amah, who spends most of the play sitting silent and attentive – and totally in character – behind a translucent (and not very flattering) portrait of herself.

This was a particularly brilliant example of psychodynamic synergy when the whole cast and crew – including the lighting, sound, and production design team – seems to have set aside petty ego issues and devoted itself unstintingly to the success of the production.  Something like this happens only rarely and spontaneously, when the raw material they’re working with comes from the heart, and everyone is inspired to do likewise.

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Low Ngai Yuen

With perfect marksmanship, the fragments of childhood reminiscences that constitute Stories for Amah hit home every time. Mark Beau declares in his playwright’s notes that this is his “first play derived from personal experiences.” Nothing is more powerful than home truths, and what makes the play work so well isn’t the beauty of the language (which doesn’t for a moment pretend at sophistication), but the simplicity and truthfulness of the sensitive child’s voice he has dredged from memory. We all know that only innocence can publicly remark on the Emperor’s nakedness with impunity.

In a brief and graphic classroom scene where the Cikgu (teacher) takes time out to record the racial breakdown of the students, the play says all that can be said about how the seeds of bigotry are planted without having to say anything at all. The scenes of domestic tension and violence are minimalistic and stark – but they strike a universal chord. No blame is intended, only understanding and reconciliation.

In the end all the hurt and humiliation, the disputes and the despair, the sorrow and suffering, are dissolved and resolved in Ruth’s recognition of the unbreakable familial bond personified by the benignity and magnanimity of her beloved Amah. The triumphant and uplifting corollary of it all would have to be: it’s never too late to tell someone you truly love them because that simple act redeems the apparent meaninglessness of our lives and reconnects us to our core selves.

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Mark Beau de Silva: nominated
Best Original Script

One may be tempted to compare Stories for Amah with Jit Murad’s widely acclaimed recent play, Spilt Gravy On Rice which, by way of contrast, celebrated a wise and loving Bapak. But the most significant difference, of course, is that Jit Murad is a well-seasoned literary and theatrical talent, who has acquired the technical chops it takes to turn out complex and jazzy dramatic fugues with elegant tragicomic counterpoints – while de Silva, who’s only just beginning his career as a bona fide Malaysian playwright, can at least boast that he has secured for himself a warm spot in everyone’s heart simply by rendering a well-remembered nursery tune with the full force of his sincere soul.

24 November 2002

[I’m happy to report that Mark Beau de Silva’s Stories for Amah received 5 nominations at the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards 2002 for Best Original Script, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Set Design, and Best Lighting Design.]

Not So Sweet But Really Quite Something

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Sweet Nothing: Gavin Yap debuts as a playwright

Gavin Yap may well be the best thing that’s happened to Malaysian theater since The Actors Studio set up shop. And to prove it isn’t on account of his devastating good looks alone, the 24-year-old thespian has turned playwright with Sweet Nothing – a high-powered exercise in neo-existentialism directed by that old master of in-your-face theatre, Joe Hasham (whose early directorial efforts, Norm and Ahmed and The Indian Wants The Bronx, remain vividly imprinted in theatergoers’ memories).

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Angelic hitmen Jeremiah (Gavin Yap) & Elijah (Edwin Sumun)

Picture Gavin Yap at 17 and the enormous impact that Quentin Tarantino’s stylish classic, Pulp Fiction, must have had on him.  In his first outing as playwright, Yap appears to have extracted the two hitmen (urbanely portrayed by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) from the 1994 movie and made them into his own characters, Jeremiah and Elijah (note the biblical monikers).

Yap’s post-modern prophets of nihilism are given crisp, zen-like lines reminiscent of the stark dialogue in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist plays. Their masturbatory play with guns and the homosexual undertone of their quirky relationship reflect an adolescent fascination with death and the utter meaninglessness of existence. But the dialogue is definitely well-crafted and reveals a good ear for punchy exchanges.

Kiss of death

Jeremiah and Elijah are each allowed a monologue explaining why they are the way they are. Both emerged from a childhood environment where violence ruled in place of love (censors who delight in snipping sex scenes while allowing all manner of brutal and violent behavior, please take note, you may unintentionally be helping to create future generations of Jeremiahs and Elijahs).

Elijah justifies his cold-blooded murder of the waitress Gabriella (fetchingly played by Caroline Moses) with: “Look at this place. It’s a shithouse. You call this a life? I looked in that girl’s eyes. She wasn’t happy. She didn’t have anything worth living for.”

Gabriella (Caroline Moses) gets snuffed by
the cold-blooded Elijah

This is the fin-de-siècle theology of the Apocalypse. The Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah and Elijah, have reincarnated as Angels of Death. And God is the Great Void, the Ultimate Nothingness, Shiva the Destroyer. Tough thinking and tough talk from a 24-year-old. But a valid worldview nonetheless, considering the state of human affairs on planet Earth.

When one first sets out to write anything, be it a poem, novel, or a play, it’s almost inevitable that one will be strongly influenced by one’s literary heroes. Therefore, the fact that Gavin’s playwriting debut is plainly derivative is in no way a criticism of his effort. Indeed, he has succeeded in crafting a suspenseful one-hour drama which keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. Joe Hasham is expert at creating dramatic tension between his actors and this worked sensationally with the material to generate an atmosphere of stark anxiety and raw primal passions.

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Edwin Sumun: deadly android

Edwin Sumun’s Elijah is measured, sculpturesque, deadly as a malfunctioning android. As Jeremiah, Gavin Yap looked and spoke so much like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction I had to keep reminding myself I was in The Actors Studio Box watching a live play, not a rerun of Tarantino’s masterpiece. Now it’s not at all a bad thing to look and sound like John Travolta. Few guys can lay claim to such animal magnetism, and such genuine talent, not to mention the photogenic poster-boy features and the smoldering eyes. One of these days, everyone will be wanting to look and sound like Gavin Yap.

However, the most remarkable performance of all was that of Ari Ratos as the unfortunate and nameless cook. He didn’t have much to say. All he had to do was babble mindlessly in Hindi (the playwright had originally ordered Italian but that would have been way too Hollywood), and prepare to die at the hands of these neo-existentialist angels of death. Yet Ratos succeeded in encapsulating our collective fear of death (and our ultimate helplessness in the face of it) in one totally intense performance.

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Ari Ratos as the cook

As the tears of terror rolled down his anguished face, he seemed to be asking the one question that must pop into every hapless victim’s mind: “WHY?”  The late Leslie Dawson (who played a very similar role in his final play, The Indian Wants The Bronx by Israel Horovitz, would have bought Ari Ratos a stiff drink afterwards, I’m sure).

I applaud The Actors Studio’s Malaysian Playwright Series for giving new writing talent the opportunity to be staged, and take my hat off to Gavin Yap for having the guts to take up the challenge. Sweet Nothing may not have been such a “sweet” experience but it was certainly quite something. Bravo, Gavin!

6 August 2002 (pix by Antares)

 

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