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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.]

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Nemmain The Style, Got Substance Or Not?

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“Mom’s Loving Hands” by Justin Jay

Antares is bemused and bewildered by MOTHER’S LOVE, Mark Beau de Silva’s second play  

It was inevitable that Mark Beau de Silva and I should meet. After I walked out on his debut production, The Dream’s Nightmare, I decided to review it anyway (needed the cash) and was surprised when the aspiring 23-year-old playwright and director thanked me for the feedback, negative though it be. We even exchanged a few friendly emails. If nothing else, this young man knows how to roll with the punches. He’ll definitely live long enough to improve with age.

And so, when a few months later Mark Beau de Silva emailed me a personal invitation to his second play, Mother’s Love, I felt compelled to check on his progress. The experience was intriguing, to say the least: I was one of four in the audience, two of whom turned out to be friends of the lead actress, Brenda Ng. When the play ended, a shy de Silva emerged from the wings and thanked me for coming. We sat around for another 15 minutes, chatting with the entire cast, and the playwright clarified a few nebulous details in the plot. I asked for a program and was told there was none. Couldn’t afford to print one on a RM3,000 budget (most of which came out of de Silva’s earnings as an advertising hack, with everyone else chipping in). The playwright proceeded to scribble the names of the cast on a scrap of paper – in case I needed them for the review.

ImageThat was more than a fortnight ago and I’m only just getting down to writing about Mother’s Love (yalah, need the cash). Problem is, one doesn’t quite know what to say about a theater production as earnest and bizarre as de Silva’s second excursion into the no-man’s-land between the phantasmal and physical realms. To dismiss it offhand as gauche and uninformed would be unnecessarily harsh judgement on one so young – and so patently keen on making his mark on the theater scene. And yet, to let the event pass unremarked might be even more of a disappointment to the enthusiastic youngsters who constitute Mark Beau’s company, De Silva and The Theatre People.

The plot of Mother’s Love might have been lifted straight off a vintage episode of Twilight Zone – or one of those 1960s Marvel comics with titles like “Tales of the Unknown.”  A nerdish introvert named Seng, convincingly portrayed by Edmund Lau, turns psychotic and murders three people, including his shrill and nagging mother (vivaciously and corpulently brought to life by Brenda Ng). His antisocial behavior puts him in a time warp (depicted by blank calendar sheets on the kitchen wall), and the boundaries between third and fourth dimensions become blurred. So blurred, in fact, that the audience (all four of us) lost all sense of sequence and ended up wondering about the point of it all.  Attribute that to technical problems with the dramaturgy. Maybe Mark Beau de Silva isn’t quite ready to direct his own scripts.

ImageThe text, raw and unrefined, seemed more concerned with realism than literary value. Similarly, the “photorealist” set was slapped together from everyday household items, down to yesterday’s washing drying on the clothesline.

I learned that the computer and monitor, plugged in and operational, belonged to the playwright himself.  The kitchen furnishings and props could have been taken from any low-rent, high-rise flat occupied by a working-class Chinese family. Talk about taking “realism” a tad too literally. And yet, the sheer inartistry of the set did serve to accentuate the depressing prosaicness of Seng’s personal hell.

Fortunately there were many intense moments in de Silva’s contemporary gothic tale of quiet desperation: the humdrum routine of Seng’s existence was effectively dramatized as he orbited robotically between home and office computer, alternately banging away on his computer keyboard, and dangling listlessly from a handstrap on his commuter train. The mother’s vicious attacks on her “useless” son’s self-esteem were chillingly penetrating, all the more so whenever she broke out in crude vernacular, in this case, Hokkien. As a study in plebeian nihilism and the psychopathology of a loner, Mother’s Love was rich in carefully observed detail. However, we’ve seen too many variations on this dismal theme to get overly excited by yet another case of Oedipal hypermania.

Sean Augustine, Jessica Ong, and Cindy Cheah made up the supporting cast. Despite their obvious inexperience on stage, they performed passably.  Augustine and Ong played Seng’s officemates and victims, Jim and Nina. You guessed it: Seng had long been Nina’s silent admirer and his jealousy got the better of him when he found out they were having an affair.

At the end of the play, one is left feeling somewhat bemused and bewildered, wondering if the glaring lack of style was a deliberate device to focus attention on the substance. But… what substance? Seems to me that writing plays must be a form of deep therapy for Mark Beau de Silva: a constructive way for him to exorcise the ghosts of what must have been a confusing and disturbing childhood.

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“The Black Marker Brigade” by Antares

And now he has a third play on the boards – Stories for Amah, about a “lain-lain” girl (“lain-lain” is the bureaucratic racial classification for Malaysians of Eurasian origin) – directed by the illustrious Joe Hasham, and produced by the indomitable Faridah Merican – with an interesting cast of seasoned and new actors. Looks like Mark Beau de Silva’s indefatigable, never-say-die spirit is going to be haunting Malaysian theater for quite a while yet.

22 November 2002

MORE NIGHTMARE THAN DREAM

“A Heart is a Dream’s Nightmare” by Angelic Moon Sushi

Antares agonizes over Mark Beau de Silva’s spectacular put-off 

I seriously considered keeping mum about my strange reaction to this gaudy and raucous musical comedy put up by a bunch of youngsters who call themselves De Silva and The Theatre People. A member of the cast had taken pains to ensure that I came to review The Dream’s Nightmare. Sometimes you just don’t want to dampen eager young spirits.

The night before, I had sacrificed Soefira Jaafar’s Twelfth Night (which I badly wanted to see because I find all the different ways of doing Shakespeare interesting) to catch the last Acoustic Jam at the Commonwealth Club – a monthly showcase of young songwriters and cutting-edge bands – and was greatly energized by the promising new talent exploding in the alternative music scene. I was looking forward to getting more reassurance that fantastic things were happening in the arts despite the deadly stench of decay and deceit that we have grown accustomed to living with.

This is perhaps the second time I’ve actually walked out of a theater midway through a performance. It’s definitely the first time I’m reviewing a production I didn’t even finish watching. Why? What WAS it that made me physically unable to bear another minute of The Dream’s Nightmare? I just wanted out of there pronto!

Were the actors all that bad? On the contrary, they all seemed to have heaps of potential, everyone was enthusiastic and unstinting in performance. Some were even good. And the costumes and lighting worked just fine. But they deserved a more serviceable vehicle for their boundless energy and talent.

Was it the singing and dancing then? Nope, that wasn’t particularly original or inspired, but it’s not easy to write a hit musical and I’m usually pretty tolerant of sincere efforts. Okay, there were more than a few moments that grated on the ear. I found the opening narration way too loud and invasive. But these are minor technical faults.

How about the central concept? Was there something “not quite right” about it?

Writer-director-composer-lyricist-actor (and costume designer) Mark Beau de Silva says it’s about the trials and tribulations of Hallucia, a pubescent dream living among terrifying nightmares in Nightmare Town. Hey, that sounds promising enough! Anyway, it was sort of like a student production – or at least it had the unmistakable feel of a class project put together by a few energetic and talented kids from a private college.

I’m not normally a nasty fellow and I don’t intend to be, so I hope no one involved in the production will take what I have to say too personally. I present my views as honest feedback, no offence intended. It’s all very well for a reviewer to walk out of a performance, but I feel accountable for my subjective reaction to the event and must somehow articulate why I couldn’t stand being in the theater after a mere 30 minutes. I felt anguished and pained. What’s going on? Surely it couldn’t be due to insufficient sleep? My lovely companion had had a good night’s rest. She, too, expressed relief at not having to sit through the entire Nightmare.

Outside the Actors Studio Theater at Dataran Merdeka, the still air was superheated. I felt the Sun microwave us as we walked across the scorching streets. For an instant I thought we might have leapt from a frying pan into the proverbial fire. But the thought of returning to the Nightmare propelled us post-haste through the steel and concrete inferno of KL.

“What do you think was ‘wrong’ with the show?” I asked her afterwards as we sipped cold drinks in a Thai restaurant. She knitted her noble brow and thought about it for a few moments. “Ummm… it somehow wasn’t in sync with anything.”

Now that’s a spot-on description, though somewhat vague. Let me attempt to elucidate this. The storyline was a rich lode of dramatic possibilities and allowed for wacky characters like Acnecia, Frieda Fright, Putrida, Mrs Miss, Uglina, Venom, Vile, Bed and Bugs. Sort of like Alice in Wonderland from the Addams Family meets the Wizard of Oz and the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the Little Shop of Horrors. So it was a playful pastiche, a loose plot slapped together around a cluster of forgettable songs and a very thin and puerile script. That sort of thing can be lots of good wholesome fun. Why didn’t this one take off?

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Mark Beau de Silva’s directorial debut at age 22

Well, Mark Beau, I think you’re a phenomenally ambitious, gifted, and dynamic young man who has a great future in showbiz. But first you’ll have to make up for the education you never received in this glorious land of Mickey Mouse Institutes set up to groom young people for an illustrious career in advertising, marketing and PR. The fatuous script seemed to have been churned out by a novice copywriter to meet a brief for “inoffensive light entertainment with wide appeal.”  It wasn’t something from deep within that you simply had to express. It was essentially an airing of your diverse and precocious talents – but without a legitimate core to its existence. It wasn’t a story with a living soul to call its own. There was no ring of truth to the endeavor. How does something like this happen? It can only happen in a culture afraid to be original, truthful, honest and real – for fear of being punished, for fear of being deemed unmarketable because the authorities might decide to ban it and then no corporate sponsors would touch it.

Imagine a world where songwriters produce nothing but jingles for jeans, 4X4s and soft drinks; where graphic designers do nothing but bargain posters and furniture catalogs; and where musicals are commissioned by corporate entities to celebrate their own prestige. That would definitely qualify as a cultural hell. Where artists believe in the bottom line and art has become nothing more than just another attractively packaged consumer product. No soul but lots of noisy style.

Tuan-tuan dan puan-puan, meet the amateur production from Hell! A lot of proud mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles (and perhaps a busload of loyal friends) will find my assessment of The Dream’s Nightmare unfair and unkind. I’d be interested to hear if anyone actually agrees with me. The house was more than half full and quite a few appeared to be enjoying the antics on stage. That’s the most worrying part, I think.

[This review appeared in kakiseni.com on 20 March 2002. Below are some comments left by readers which I feel deserve to be included herein…]

Readers’ Comments 

Thanks      Wed, Mar 20 2002 10:27:46

Dear Antares

Thank you Antares for your constructive comments. I will surely think of purity and honesty for the next production (please don’t cringe, yes there will be a next production). My first attempt was merely to entertain. I’m sincerely sorry you weren’t, Antares. I actually thought your review would be good… considering that your past reviews were all good ones. I guess my stuff was that bad huh? but thanks lah, your comments have given me more ‘semangat’ to put up a better one the next time. Take care man….oh and yes…for those who came for the show, i want to hear your comments…thanx

love, Mark

posted by Mark Beau markbds@hotmail.com

You’re a Marked Man! 🙂      Wed, Mar 20 2002 14:19:20

Hey, Mark! I am so glad to see you respond personally to my nightmarish review. I have friends who didn’t speak to me for 7 years because I ‘savaged’ their pet production. And they weren’t 22 year olds either! I’m awed by your semangat – your spunk. There isn’t any doubt in my mind that you are a living dynamo of ideas. But if you own a Ferrari, it helps if you also know how to drive (and approximately where you want to go!)

I was a guest lecturer at a private college for a while and very much enjoyed interacting with young minds. However, I was intrigued by the fact that many 20-yr-olds were submitting essays indicating a mental maturity of 14 or 15 (I only have a few reference points, including my own experience, as a yardstick, so I’d better qualify what I mean by “immature.”) Well, these were mostly very bright and self-confident kids from middle-class homes with yuppie parents. One thing they had in common was growing up watching TV and eating at McDonald’s and KFC. Yup, they were the Yuppie Consumer Generation – a generation ‘educated’ by glitzy ads on TV and brain-deadened by the Ministry of Education’s industrial robotization program. For the most part they didn’t have a clue about things that really mattered and couldn’t be bothered what was going on in the country or in the world. Fortunately there are always a handful who actually do and they were a great inspiration to me.

If anything, my critique was leveled at the sort of vacuous commercialism, corporate piratism, and middle-class ‘kiasuness’ nincompoop notions like Wawasan 2020 have spawned. This grotesque rise of the Lowest Common Denominator to almost absolute dominance has also hastened the demise of basic decency and the love of truth. Knowledge is deemed useless unless it can be converted to quick cash. In short, we have become a very crass and crude society – ruled by blind greed and constant fear of punishment. Recently, a 16-yr-old found herself in trouble with her parents because school prefects had searched her bag and found a condom. I ask you: which is the greater horror, the fact that an intelligent adolescent is cautiously exploring the vast minefield of sexuality – or that some students have been granted secret police powers to conduct search and arrest operations at school? Sounds like we’re living in an Orwellian nightmare and don’t even know it!

Mark Beau, I’m sure you will rise above this materially comfortable but aesthetically and ethically barren milieu and make something truly worthwhile of your many gifts. My very best wishes to you on your journey of self-discovery!

posted by Antares Antares@time.net.my 

kakiseni doesn’t censor anymore     Wed, Mar 20 2002 15:43:43

Just a quick note from the editor here to say that sexual words written in this comments section are no longer censored and replaced by @!#$???.

posted by Jenny Daneels contact@kakiseni.com

Hallucia made my Evening Though    Thu, Mar 21 2002 11:50:10

After watching 12th Nite, which I believe was a debut to most of the young cast of the play on the first nite of its showing, I was so absolutely entertained, was so very proud of their performance. The way the whole play in its entire simplicity took my breath away. I guess I expected a little too much when I insisted on getting the tickets (which was not sold at Actors Studio but independently) I believed that “Dreams Nitemare” would be something else, somewhat along the same line of ’12th Nite” but I was totally disappointed.  Anyway, I must congratulate ‘Hallucia’ for her exceptional singing/acting talent which I stayed on for, if not I would have walked out too, Antares (-;

Well, I guess we all learn from our experiences and I just hope that Mark and his team mates, would not stop here or let “Dreams Nitemare” be a discouragement but rather a stepping stone to better performances.

Keep it going!!

posted by Nesam Pillay nesampillay@yahoo.com

:~(   Thu, Mar 21 2002 15:24:11

Antares’ reply here really really hit home. I hope more people are reading the small prints on this page.

posted by V vuvie@skali.com

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