Antares attempts 7 mini-reviews of 7 original “10-minute” plays directed by Krishen Jit
I had the misfortune of stumbling across a malignant critique of 7 Ten just before I sat down to write my own. Though put off by what struck me as an unjustified and jaundiced attack on Five Arts Centre’s latest production, I was tickled by the disgruntled critic’s facetious reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (implying that Snow White would rather be offered seven inches at one go then an inch in seven servings). This crude comparison is undeniably funny, but the ungratified critic may as well whine, after attending a festival of short films, that he actually would have preferred a re-run of Ben Hur.
For me it was a stimulating and rewarding evening, even if almost half the program didn’t exactly excite – and a couple of the plays were noticeably longer than the promised ten minutes. Without launching into a spurious discussion on the merits and demerits of packaging an assortment of playlets as a unified theater experience, I shall focus on each effort and my subjective response to it.
Leow Puay Tin’s Dinner For Two In The Best Of Restaurants was a scathing commentary on the death of marriage as an institution, performed in a surreal, semi-operatic style by Anne James and Lim How Ngean. Though no attempt was made at realistic acting, the tragicomic undercurrent of the dialogue was stark and vivid. Leow’s cynical view of the hollowness and sterility of the marital morass may offer cold comfort to couples undergoing similar torment, but the subject has been addressed since the early 1960s by playwrights like Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Yet, year after year, people continue to plunge headlong into the same old dilemma. I suppose the psychological pitfalls of institutionalized monogamy – and the emotional catatonia it invariably induces – will always be fair game for playwrights.
Not In by Alfian Sa’at – enfant terrible of Singapore’s literary and theater scene – was an impassioned attempt at pamphleteering against the intimidating powers of a fascist state (defined as a condition wherein business and government conspire to usurp the constitutional rights of individual citizens). Though animatedly enacted by Jerrica Lai (as a “kiasi” political science graduate working in a T-shirt boutique who refuses to fulfill her customer’s order for fear of political repercussions) and Melissa Saila (as an undergrad trying to express her political views by printing anti-war slogans on her T-shirt), the skit came across as something you might see at a consciousness-raising event organised by human rights activists. In other words, the message was laudable but the text a bit too literal, in-your-face, and one-dimensional. Nevertheless, it was reassuring to hear Alfian’s dissenting voice in the face of Singapore’s economically expedient pro-Bushwar stance in recent months.
Anne James and Sumitra Selvaraj did an impressive job of bringing to life Charlene Rajendran’s predictable exposé of the long-suffering Indian woman’s lot in a conservative patriarchal culture. Polishing rehashed some of K.S. Maniam’s pet themes in his short stories and plays about the Indian community. Two upper-class women from two different generations come to terms with their repressed feelings while waiting for guests to arrive at a social event. A row of servants hard at work polishing the silver provided some foreground dynamics and dramatized the title of the play – while the women dialogued, their inner anguish bleeding through their well-groomed façades. No doubt the issues addressed by Charlene’s tame but well-crafted playlet continue to hold currency for a great many women trapped in the Kali yuga – but for me the subject matter and style seem passé in the new millennium. Surely it’s time to move from chest-beating victim consciousness to more adventurous literary ground?
The evening began to really take off with They Will Be Grateful – Huzir Sulaiman’s excruciatingly funny skewering of Malaysia’s brave new corporate-entrepreneurial ethos as the nation eagerly embraces its NIC (Newly Industrializing Country) status. Huzir’s clipped, sloganistic lines were delivered as a comic fugal counterpoint – like a barbershop quartet performing a tuneless opera co-written by Bertolt Brecht and Franz Kafka. Hearty applause goes out to Ghafir Akbar, Jerrica Lai, Lennard Gui, and Lim How Ngean for an impeccably timed and riveting ensemble performance. The synopsis for this gem of a playlet was probably lifted verbatim from an institutional ad for Malaysia Inc or a Cyberjaya corporate prospectus.
Malam Konsert by Jit Murad featured Melissa Saila and Zahim Albakri in a poignant scene from a contemporary suburban made-for-TV domestic drama. A divorced daddy arrives to pick up his kid for the weekend and, while helping mummy pack the little tyke’s satchel, the estranged couple discharge some residual tension over an unplanned bout of post-marital sex that resulted from watching their kid perform at a recent school concert. Considering the epidemic of divorces we hear about these days, Jit’s masterful and subtle study of a complex issue was charged with therapeutic value: it’s true, just being good friends is far healthier than being unhappily married if parents are truly committed to their children’s emotional stability. The dialogue, as was the naturalistic acting, was entirely credible and hit the spot. Zahim Albakri was a pleasure to watch and Melissa Saila certainly has the potential to blossom into a bi-lingual Meryl Streep.
Mark Teh’s Daulat was a kinetic essay on the schizoid dichotomy within the national psyche – the perpetual conflict between biogram and logogram (the biogram being what the body instinctually does; and the logogram being what the mind has been programmed to believe). Jerrica Lai and Lim How Ngean were in excellent athletic form as they alternately boogied, mamboed, and twitched to the irresistible beat of their youthful lifeblood – and mechanically parroted official dogma and paid lip-service to the feudal, hierarchic mindset governing our mundane existence. With the minimum of verbalization, Teh ingeniously took the perennial non-debate between old age and youth to an illogical extreme, graphically dramatizing the absurdity of the contradictions between what “the authorities” say and what they themselves are inclined to do. It was polemical theater at its slickest and most poker-faced.
Operating Theatre by Jo Kukathas was pretty much Harold Pinter meets Monty Python. Zahim Albakri played the discarnate intelligence of a man who has been arrested by the Special Branch (Malaysia’s own secret police), interrogated and tortured to the point of unconsciousness, and then sent to the hospital where he expires – putting the doctors and nurses in a moral and political quandary. There were powerful echoes of the arsenic poisoning episode involving erstwhile deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim (imprisoned for 15 years on dubious charges) which no one now appears to remember. Lennard Gui played the dead detainee to perfection, while Anne James, Ghafir Akbar, Lim How Ngean, and Mardiana Ismail played the medical team as well as the secret police with efficient panache. It was a cogent piece of political theater, performed with a heady mix of Chaplinesque slapstick and Beckettsian sombreness.
Director Krishen Jit adroitly wove the seven playlets into a continuous flow by making the scene changes part of the entertainment (as he did, though not so successfully, in Manchester United and the Malay Warrior). Various elements of his dramaturgic explorations over the decades could be seen in each of the playlets – the overall effect being that one simply has to acknowledge that the man is totally dedicated to his craft and lives entirely for theater. Perhaps consummate mastery has thus far eluded him, but it’s far more useful to posterity for a creative flame to shine consistently and steadily over an entire lifetime, than for it to erupt in blinding brilliance, only to sputter out after a series of shortlived climaxes.
2 June 2003