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ONE AT A TIME – OR ALL IN ONE GO?

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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.

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Krishen Jit & Huzir Sulaiman

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.

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Sumitra Selvaraj

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?

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Jerrica Lai

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.

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Melissa Saila

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.

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Mark Teh as playwright

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.

Mardiana Ismail

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

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WAXING LYRICAL IN THE KITCHEN

Anne James as Agnes Fernandez

Antares reviews Those Four Sisters Fernandez 

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The incredibly prodigious
Huzir Sulaiman

At the ripe old age of 26, Huzir Sulaiman has written seven plays in three years.  His first effort, Lazy Hazy Crazy, was a one-man comedy revue à la Instant Café Theatre; Atomic Jaya was a surreal political satire showcasing the consummate acting talent of Jo Kukathas.  Huzir’s next venture, a romantic musical comedy titled Hip-Hopera, proved a box-office hit.  Notes on Life & Love & Painting, The Smell of Language, and Election Day were dramatic monologues exploring art, megalomania, and neo-existentialism.

What’s remarkable about Huzir Sulaiman’s prolific output as a playwright is the consistent high quality of writing he has achieved.  His latest outing, Those Four Sisters Fernandez – a tribute of sorts to his own Malayalee roots has in no way damaged this excellent track record; although in being translated to the stage Four Sisters came across more as a promising work-in-progress rather than another literary feather in Huzir’s cap.

I was reminded of Woody Allen’s 1986 film, Hannah and Her Sisters, a consummate Chekovian study of three Jewish American sisters and the complex dynamics of their interrelationships.  Not quite so consummately, Huzir’s Four Sisters explores the psychodynamics of a Catholic Malayalee family brought together by calamity: the eldest Fernandez sister, Janet, falls into a coma and requires home nursing.  The entire play is set in the kitchen of the Fernandez household, now presided over by Beatrice, the youngest, who’s married to a nice Chinese guy named Jeffrey.  Janet, though comatose and invisible, is an omnipresent link to the Fernandez family’s past.

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Sukania Venugopal

Helen is back on leave from her UN job in Geneva and the ancient antagonism between her and the spinsterish Agnes threatens to flare up.  Over the years Helen has become cosmopolitan, cynical and worldly-wise while Agnes remains steeped in the Catholic Malayalee mystique.  Beatrice, the amiable one, doesn’t seem to have any personal axe to grind, though she bears the brunt of keeping the household going.  And she appears to be content with her marriage to the affable but lethally boring Jeffrey Tan.

Those Four Sisters Fernandez is literally a kitchen drama, though one is tempted to dub it a Krishen drama.  Veteran director Krishen Jit (who happens to cohabit with a Catholic Malayalee) has generally shunned realism in theater for a post-Brechtian approach that favors stylized performances from his cast.  In this instance he seems to have invoked the memory of the late Bosco D’Cruz (a well-loved Malayalee Catholic theater practitioner) who surely would have seized upon Huzir’s script with gusto, squeezing from it every drop of melodrama inherent in the lively, sparkling lines.  But Krishen’s dramaturgical path has diverged too far from naturalistic theater for him to return to the genre without appearing a tad amateurish.

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Eddy Chin

This was especially apparent whenever Jeffrey intruded into the kitchen.  Eddy Chin’s Jeffrey Tan was a cross between Little Noddy and a bible camp instructor – innocuous and likeable enough, and his tenor-baritone voice was a pleasure to listen to – but there was something so patently stagey about his performance I kept wondering if the director was attempting to parody some of the Malayalee dramas he may have witnessed in the 1960s.  Of course, it’s also possible that Chin (whose forte is opera) simply can’t act – in which case the blame must fall squarely on Krishen Jit for assigning him the rôle.

Suikania Venugopal, as Helen Fernandez, had the juiciest lines (“What would you have done, elope to romantic Rawang?”).  Ms Venugopal played alcoholic inebriation to hilarious perfection in the Christmas booze-up scene, and turned in a valiant performance despite a severe cold that occasionally marred her audibility.

Anne James (the only bona fide Catholic Malayalee in the cast) was generally credible as the somewhat dour but stoical Agnes Fernandez – except on the occasions when she lapsed into a declamatory delivery of her lines.  The playwright’s fondness for syntactical elegance may have caused some of Agnes’s verbal cadences to sound stilted.  But it’s also possible that Anglophonic Malayalees have a tendency to wax lyrical in their own kitchens – particularly when confronted with siblings who have just returned from abroad with posh accents and snooty attitudes.

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Sandra Sodhy

Beatrice is the blandest but best-adjusted of the four sisters Fernandez.  Janet took over from Mama as family matriarch, but now that she’s in a coma, baby Beatrice comes into her own with good humor and a positive disposition.  She even succeeds in producing a tastier Christmas roast.  Sandra Sodhy turned in an admirably natural performance, despite her character being the least clearly defined of the lot.

The IKEA-furnished set designed by Paul Lau achieved new heights of naturalism and Mac Chan’s lighting was competently unobtrusive.  But the Christmas party sound effects could have done with a touch more realism.  In a play as claustrophobic as this, the sounds of a party raging offstage would have been a very welcome change of focus.

Paula Malai Ali

Alas, the effects were too perfunctory to fool the senses.  Hmmm… and it would have been lovely if those four Fernandez girls had had a long-lost kid sister, played by another subspecies of Malayalee, the one and only… Paula Malai Ali.  Poor Jeffrey would have had a stroke.

Compounding the mundane and predictable complexity of family politics with perplexity, Huzir inserts symbolic non sequitirs into the thickening plot: now why did Janet alter the date of her husband’s death from June 3rd to June 29th? Is there a hidden allusion to anal sex?  And what was all that about the knife?  Does this mean some family secrets will remain forever secret?

25 September 2003

Perfect Union of 3 Children

3 Children at the Shanghai Theater Academy: Yang Wenqi, Wu Wencong & Hou Zhongping

There we all were, on Row E, sitting proud and pretty: the unofficial Malaysian delegation to the 11th and final performance of Leow Puay Tin’s 3 Children at the Singapore Drama Center.

A few seats away sat the playwright. And beside her was Chin San Sooi, the man who initiated her into the mysterious allures of playacting and playwriting; and who midwifed her brilliant entry into the forefront of Malaysian theater with Emily of Emerald Hill.

In July 1988, 3 Children was premiered in Kuala Lumpur, with San Sooi directing.  It came across well enough for TheatreWorks, a leading company in Singapore, to take it on as their first major co-production with a Malaysian group, Five Arts Centre.

The experiment entailed more than a change of cast and venue: Five Arts Centre co-founder, noted academician, theater critic and drama doyen Krishen Jit was engaged to direct TheatreWorks’ production of 3 Children.

He spent every weekend over a 3-month period commuting to rehearsals by plane (despite an inherent fear of flying).

In his absence Ong Keng Sen, TheatreWorks’ artistic director, functioned as co-director, getting the performers in shape by putting them through a rigorous regimen of improvisations – accompanied by training sessions in Chinese opera, voice, and tai-chi.

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Ong Keng Sen

“I filled in the details,” Keng Sen told me later, “Krishen executed the bold strokes.”

Meanwhile, the playwright had reworked the material, though not to an unrecognizable extent.  Sequences were reshuffled, a few expanded, additional scenes written – with the result that we witnessed what San Sooi described as “an entirely different play.”

He was right, in a manner of speaking – but I prefer to think of it as the same play, radically transformed by a different energy and vision.

In the course of being transplanted from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore, 3 Children had evolved and matured with the same miraculous swiftness that very young children exhibit in their development. Those who had seen the KL production four months ago could only shake their heads in wonder and exclaim: “My, my, my, but how you’ve grown!”

More than once I found myself fighting back tears. Not tears of vicarious grief as one engrossed in a soap opera might shed – but tears of poignant rediscovery and revelation, brought on by emotions and insights seeping from subterranean sources of sudden remembrance.

Only very sincere and very great art has the power to stir the ancestral memory; to reawaken cellular experience long encrusted with routine and trivia.

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3 Children in New York (2005)

With 3 Children, Puay Tin dug deep into her own psyche and struck the motherlode of collective dream consciousness.  The further in one looks, the farther out one expands. The personal becomes universal, becomes transpersonal.

To call Puay Tin’s work “Joycean” is perhaps too easy and the most obvious thing to do.  But I can’t think of anyone else offhand who succeeded as well as James Joyce in fulfilling the role of shaman-poet for a entire civilization. The heavy-but-nourishing Irish stew Joyce concocted from disparate thought-clusters floating through the minds of assorted Dubliners can be said to contain an entire Cosmos.

Similarly, Puay Tin has cooked up for us a tasty Teochew porridge, if you like, of human experience drawn from a tiny puddle of life called Kappan Road in Malacca.

Her three children – two girls and a boy – undergo multiple permutations as two sisters and a brother; mother, father, daughter; husband, wife, mother-in-law; sister, brother, mother; old man, young woman, matriarch. And so on.

Their interactions are so intense and dynamic that Krishen Jit felt a more neutral party was needed, if only to take some of the strain off both audience and performers. Hence the introduction of a narrator – sort of an animated academic footnote-cum-Greek chorus ably played by Neo Swee Lin. In any case the narrator also came in handy moving the occasional prop about; still, I can foresee her role expanding, should the production be exported farther abroad (as it fully deserves to be). Audiences in, say, New York would surely appreciate having a few localisms like “jamban” and “ang tau chooi” explained.

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The New York cast of 3 Children
perform in Hong Kong (2006)

Staged against a muted shadow-play-within-the-play enacted on huge staggered screens (how could Krishen resist this tribute to that most ancient of theater forms, wayang kulit?), 3 Children was an inspired synthesis of poetry, drama, dance, opera, and group therapy.

Never have I seen a more intelligent and effective blend of avant-garde and traditional elements; nor a happier combination of words, movement, music, and visual environment. (Justin Hill designed the quietly expressive set; Mark Chan created the sparing, tasteful musical augmentations; William Teo and Sebastian Zeng designed the versatile costumes; and Dora Tan did the superb lighting.)

Three metaphorical children ride imafinary horses through a symbolic jungle. They are played by Lim Kay Tong, Lok Meng Chue, and Claire Wong (Chui Ling) with extraordinary ability, agility, and skill. More need not (and, indeed, cannot) be said: their tight, disciplined, pull-out-all-the-stops performance (after such a protracted run) left me breathless.

Sometimes it seems the children are searching for something… a temple on a hill, spiritual truth, succor, enlightenment.  Sometimes they appear to be running from something… an unseen persecutor, inevitable punishment, damnation, death, demons.  At one point they find themselves horseless; at another, barefoot.

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Lim Kay Tong

Perhaps they are trapped forever in hell. Quite possibly they are at the very gates of heaven. The sparse, suggestive dialogue resonates with significance.

“Look! We are free at last! The walls are gone, the gate is open, we are free to come and go as we please!” says the optimist.

“The fire is dying swiftly, soon it will be dead!” says the realist.

“It is dead, everything is dead, even the ghosts bare dead!” says the pessimist. “But what can we do?” They find themselves in a house, hunting for a key.

They find themselves in a theater, acting in a play.

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Claire Wong

Interspersed throughout their dream/nightmare ride deep into the jungle, fragments of childhood memories from Kappan Road: And my grandmother said… pass water and the bad dream will go away… grandmother is old, she is full of feelings…

The Famous Five went on an outing to the Green Pool: naughty dog Timmy, he ran off with Anne’s sausage… Ang Tau Mooi sold ang tau chooi every day after school in the alley.

Tragicomic tales spun from working-class lives.  From the banal and the inconsequential to cruel twists of horrible fate.  Altogether forming an organic mass that spills over into different dimensions of time and space.

Aunt Ah Kim was given away as a baby; she grew up, married a taxi driver, and gambled her life away. Is she remembered with fondness, guilt, regret, shame? Does the softhearted porter in Limbo keep the gate open for her so she can linger longer, a restless ghost, among the living?

Within this writhing, seething morass of human experience – of laughter, pain, and madness – like a river the life-pulse courses. This river is Time and it receives the dead, as well as offerings for the deceased.

The ride through the jungle begins when the brother crosses the river (with the aid of his “yin-tuition”) to join his two sisters. It ends when they finally reach the temple on the hill, the court of last resort – only to find no Judge present, no one at all. But what difference does it make?

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Neo Swee Lin

The history of Kappan Road remains a mystery – to the three children as well as to the 3,000 or so theatergoers in Singapore who came… and were bewildered, impressed, amazed, delighted, excited and very nearly enlightened by this epoch-making prodigy of a co-production. It was an experiment founded on solid theater experience culled from both sides of the Causeway, and presented with consummate attention to detail.

Obviously, the right spirit (bold, adventurous, exploratory) had found the right form (polished, precise, professional) to produce a perfect union.

[First published in the New Straits Times, 28 November 1988]

POSTSCRIPT: I’m happy to report that Leow Puay Tin’s 3 Children has been produced in various countries by a variety of theater companies since this review was written.

 

DARKNESS & DOUBT ON A DOUBLE BILL

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

TAMING of the SARI

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Taming Sari, a 500-year-old keris reputedly belonging to Hang Tuah, the legendary Malay warrior (photo: Casey Ng)

Antares plays Red Devils’ Advocate at MANCHESTER UNITED AND THE MALAY WARRIOR

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Rani Moorthy, Malaysian-born Mancunian

Having been greatly entertained by Rani Moorthy’s one-woman play, Pooja, I was looking forward to the staging of her latest work, Manchester United and the Malay Warrior (which will see a one-week run in June at Cultureshock, the Commonwealth Games Cultural Festival in Manchester). A collaboration between Five Arts Centre, Rasa (Ms Moorthy’s own company) and Contact (UK), the project was spawned from a Creative Industries Trade Mission from Malaysia to Manchester two years ago. As a Mancunian resident born in Malaysia, Rani Moorthy was ideally positioned to create this complex study of hero archetypes in a cross-cultural context. Ms Moorthy’s non-linear text was intelligent and lyrical, laden with historical and mythical references, and whimsically addressed the issue of cultural and ethnic identities in non-Euclidean spacetime. But how it was translated to the stage raised a few questions many have asked but no one can answer. For instance, what defines a play as “experimental” and what makes it plain boring? When does artsy turn into fartsy and vice versa? Not so long ago, a cross-cultural dramatic collaboration of colossal proportions was staged in KL. Called Pulau Antara – The Island In Between, it was directed by Jo Kukathas with a huge Japanese and Malaysian cast. Despite a few structural weaknesses in the script, it proved to be a spectacular production and broke through to new levels of artistic and technical achievement in its use of multimedia effects.

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Krishen Jit, Malaysian dramaturge & theater doyen

The same cannot be said of Manchester United and the Malay Warrior as dramatized by the indefatigable Krishen Jit. After nearly 40 years in theater, Krishen’s reputation as a dramaturge is probably too firmly entrenched to be shaken -or even dented – by mere criticism. But, much as I love the man and respect his dedication to the development of a “post-colonial” Malaysian theater style, I have to say he seems to have run out of ideas. That doesn’t mean I think he should stop. Theater is his life and soul, and even if his dramaturgical output is wearing thin, we’re happy to have him around forever. Indeed, we’re fortunate to have him around at all. A saucy rojak of Malay bangsawan and Chinese opera, tossed in with random elements of Brecht, Chekov, and Ionesco, may produce a universal salad with a distinctly local flavor, but it doesn’t constitute a dietary staple. And you can’t keep microwaving and serving up last week’s rojak without losing customers or turning it into gado-gado. The bottom line is, people are paying more and more for an evening at the theatre – and they want to be entertained, not merely provoked and left scratching their heads. High-brow art doesn’t necessarily hasten the receding of hairlines on eggheads, it can also be wonderfully down-to-earth, engaging, soul-satisfying, sexy and, above all, enjoyable. Art comes from the heart, not the head. True, a learned head can craft what the heart says into sheer eloquence, but too much left-brain processing only turns it into empty, institutionalized rhetoric. In his director’s notes, Krishen says:

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Hang Tuah vs Hang Jebat,
Apollonian vs Dionysian

“One of the most debatable issues was the character and persona of Hang Tuah and his brand of heroism. The revised version of the play tussles with the contested notions; the phenomenon of contestation and dispute continue to preoccupy our current rehearsals. An edginess continues to occupy the air of the rehearsals, producing tensions and conflicts that are one of the stimulating aspects of the present collaboration.” Reading between the lines, one gets the impression that there was a fair amount of artistic disagreement amongst the collaborators (at least one hopes there was); but judging from the performance, it would appear the director had the final say. Was there nothing I liked about Man U and the Malay Warrior? Well, the technical aspects were fine (nothing particularly brilliant) except for the incidental music which kept jamming, causing the dancers to pause in mid-step till the sound came back on (now, this jerky effect could have been deliberate, it’s hard to tell with a Five Arts production). Video footage of the Manchester United soccer club was inserted at strategic points but contributed little (apart from breaking the visual monotony) to Ms Moorthy’s musings on culture heroes.

Elaine Pedley, livewire performer

British actress-director Romy Baskerville turned in a stalwart performance as the nostalgic pensioner Alice; and the multi-talented Mohamad Arifwaran (who also choreographed) was fairly engaging as Kamal and Hang Jebat. Jerrica Lai as Tun Teja was her usual intense self (and did well as a dominatrix in one of the video sequences). Elaine Pedley and Mardiana Ismail (Hang Lekir and Hang Kasturi) were energetic, highly focused, and very cute. However, Adlin Aman Ramlie’s Hang Tuah looked but didn’t sound the part at all; while Chee Sek Thim was rather lame as Hang Lekiu, loverboy Tengku, and even as the ethereal back-projected Jinn (whose mask-like makeup was neither grotesque nor scary, it was simply unaesthetic and uninspired). The “Keystone Kop” prop movers (working at high speed to a silent film soundtrack) might have been intended to lend the proceedings a cartoonish dimension – but I didn’t laugh, nor was I amused by the frozen grimaces on the dancers’ faces. Some people are too serious to be funny and Krishen Jit is a prime example. Somehow, the boundaries between comical, farcical, and poignant moments became blurred, so much so that any inherent humor or wisdom in the script was obliterated by the stilted style of the performances. In the early 1980s Five Arts Centre dedicated itself to producing cutting-edge theater. Time (and sponsorship contraints) may have considerably blunted that edge, but in this arts-unfriendly climate, we have little choice but to keep supporting and cheering on the few institutions that have endured. Nonetheless, beyond subjective definitions of “excellent” or “mediocre” theater, paying audiences expect to at least enjoy themselves. No doubt there were a few “interesting” ideas thrown at us but, alas, there was far too little joy in the experience.

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Manchester’s Red Devils may encounter visa hassles in Islamic countries…

7 May 2002

A Truly Ballsy Emily of Emerald Hill

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Ivan Heng as Emily Gan in a 2011 restaging of Stella Kon’s classic monologue

I’d forgotten what it was about families and society in general that made me rebel as a teenager. Stella Kon’s classic study of a Nyonya matriarch in postwar Singapore – the highly acclaimed Emily of Emerald Hill – brought it all home to me. For hours, no, for days after seeing Emily for the third time (each time with a different Emily), I was awash in an ocean of memories and long-forgotten feelings. Such is the power and scope of Stella Kon’s 1983 masterpiece that it holds up admirably to repeated scrutiny, regardless of who’s playing Emily Gan. In this particular instance, it was a remarkably talented bloke named Ivan Heng – but more about Ivan later.

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Doing Emily in drag… twice!

The subject matter of the monologue is complex indeed – and far too rich for any short essay or review to do it justice. Doctoral dissertations can be (or ought to be) written about Emily of Emerald Hill. But in the final analysis, it’s all about life… and control issues… and thwarted love, deformed by ambition.

As a dramatic text, Emily of Emerald Hill deserves the highest accolades. Rarely does a playwright hit on such a mother lode of inspiration and succeed in crafting it into such an unforgettable theater experience.

The first Emily Gan I saw was played to perfection by Leow Puay Tin. Her transcendental performance permanently imprinted the aesthetic pleasure of witnessing an excellent monologue brilliantly realized for the stage. For me, Emily Gan will always look like Leow Puay Tin – just as the Professor Higgins I know bears a striking resemblance to Rex Harrison.

True, I never saw Margaret Chan’s interpretation of Emily Gan – and thus must beg her pardon for my unreasonable bias. However, I caught the revival of Emily starring Pearlly Chua – whose meticulous portrayal was impressive, but a touch too soap operatic for my taste.

So how did Ivan Heng fare as the latest incarnation of Emily Gan? First of all, anyone who saw Ivan in Ovidia Yu’s Woman in a Tree on a Hill or in his autobiographical Journey West is probably an ardent fan of this ebullient theatrical prodigy from Singapore. Ivan Heng is incredibly talented and always watchable – even when he’s having a little fun at his own and the audience’s expense. In other words, Ivan’s pretty damn good even when he’s plain showing off.

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Ivan Heng with a model of his new Emily of Emerald Hill set

With Krishen Jit as dramaturgical catalyst and sounding board, Ivan created a savvy and sophisticated Emily Gan. Or, as an astute reviewer put it, Ivan’s Emily had balls. His flamboyance got almost burlesque at moments, but the strength of Stella Kon’s text grounded the action in the human dimension at all times.

The jazzy and staccato lighting by Mac Chan was adventurous and actually worked very well – except at moments when the audience was blinded by the irritatingly intrusive glare of a “chandelier” in the Gan mansion and the house lights would come on, compelling audience participation (that’s a little too in-your-face if you ask me). An elaborate art deco set by Raja Maliq appeared quite redundant after a while. It was extremely tasteful nevertheless, never mind the visual incongruity of the giant framed screens upon which colors and images occasionally played. That’s Krishen Jit’s signature motif, the wayang kulit screen.

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Emily of Emerald Hill reloaded

For any accomplished actress (or actor), playing Emily Gan is the equivalent of a solo Channel crossing for a championship swimmer. Ivan Heng, I’m happy to report, made it to the opposite shore (he couldn’t possibly have failed, such is his reserve of sheer prowess). but whenever I hear the name “Emily Gan” I can’t help but see someone who looks like Leow Puay Tin. It’s hard to improve on perfection. I only hope Puay Tin will do Emily one more time – and let herself be filmed for posterity.

15 October 1999

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