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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

 

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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.]

WEIRD ISN’T ALWAYS WONDERFUL

Caecar Chong: butoh-flavored existential surrealism, anyone?

Antares very nearly nods off at Lee Swee Keong’s Nyoba Dance+ offering

Call me an old stick-in-the-mud, but I’m one of those diehard conservatives who generally hopes to gain some pleasure, joy, insight, epiphany, revelation, or even simple amusement from an evening at the theater. All I gleaned from A Cherry Bludgeoned, A Spirit Crushed was that the Chinese avant-garde has hit the big time in KL – and that there’s a horde of young dancers, musicians, designers, and actors with enormous energy, ego-drive and talent – but with no sense of direction or purpose other than to get their efforts known beyond the confines of their own circles. These are post cari makan Chinese in search of greater makna (meaning) – or, perhaps, unmakna!

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Keeping a low profile

Well and good, you might say, but at what point does an artist’s need for attention become an impudent imposition on his or her audience? Again, the age-old question: where do you draw the line between the arty and the merely farty? The answer is really quite simple: when you leave the theater feeling robbed of your time, rather than privileged to have witnessed something beautiful and true. No doubt there were a few in the audience who derived a great deal more meaning from the performance than I did – if only because they could understand the metaphorical or mythical context of what struck me as a visually mesmerizing but utterly obscure bit of mummery – with only some Chinese subtitles to go by and a smattering of Cantonese and Mandarin verbiage thrown in. Not much help really. And the program was equally obscure. True, there was a repetitive poetic commentary in English very seductively read by Merissa Teh – but the words fully matched the choreography in terms of obscurity: “ah! fawn of youth!/dapper/stalwart/thick of thigh/well equipped/bandit advances/my dagger at the draw/just in case...”

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Lee Swee Keong, electric butoh monk

Okay, that takes us back to a recent production of Rashomon in which Lee Swee Keong played the monk, and very credibly too. Merissa Teh’s sultry voice reinforced the impression that Lee had found his basic inspiration from the famous Japanese saga of rape (after all, wasn’t it Merissa who played the ravaged wife?)

What about the projected kinetic text? Ah, that came right out of Hiroshi Koike’s Spring In Kuala Lumpur – another production in which Lee shone – as did the dangling cucumber in lieu of a dead sparrow (but why not a carrot? I guess cucumbers are much easier to disembowel).

Butoh in the digital era

What about the Ikea tealight-lit cooking sequence with gas stove, garlic and cooking oil? Aha! Lee must have really liked Aida Redza’s Tiga Naga, which had the dancers pounding sambal belacan in stone mortars and swallowing the spicy shrimp paste to produce dragon’s breath.

The performers comprised Ian Yang, Caecar Chong, Kiea Kuan Nam, Lee Swee Keong – and a chimeric horse on castors which was led round and round the stage for no less than 15 minutes (it was at that point I found myself nodding off) while techno-composer Goh Lee Kwang played DJ with a trance-inducing rhythmic loop on his laptop.

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Kiea Kuan Nam:
dancing in briefs

Initially emerging clad only in yellow briefs, the dancers wasted no time transforming themselves into Chinese court ladies in black, red, yellow and blue – thereby surpassing Joe Hasham’s Importance of Being Earnest by attempting the cross-dressing right on stage. Costume designer Khoon Hooi must have had fun dressing the horse.

In any case the “love horse” – the most evocative element in the entire production, with its otherworldly antlered head conjuring images of Cernunnos the ancient forest deity or mystic unicorns – came in handy as an excuse for audience participation. People were invited on stage to mount it and be photographed just before the finale.

Goh’s electronic music succeeded in generating a hypnotic ambience, though it lacked the subtlety, texture and lyricism attained by dancer-composer Weijun Loh’s recent audio experiments. It’s no great feat to create a nerve-racking cacophony that merely drains the audience’s energy. Fortunately there were enough funky bits to make up for the headache-inducing intro – but I must remark at this juncture that plagiarising from Ravel’s Bolero without due acknowledgment or credit may well constitute an artistic offence. But I suppose Maurice is long dead and can’t object too much.

Mac Chan’s lighting was, as usual, one of the more redeemingly competent elements of the production and contributed greatly to the arty atmosphere rather than the farty. The same cannot be said, alas, for Lau Mun Leng’s performance art or live installation, as the program describes it. While the “ladies” are busy preparing their “meal” on stage, Lau is busy scrawling cryptic numbers and energy lines around them and finishes up by wheeling onstage a blood red toilet bowl overflowing with foam and decorating the foam with fake bloodstains. Now what was that supposed to represent? That the moon was exerting her periodic influence on the court ladies? Or was it merely an idea borrowed from Paul Loosley’s madcap staging of Ubu Roi last year in which toilet bowls were the leitmotif? I hope the director wasn’t insinuating that his artistic vision was crap!

Visually mesmerizing

I have long been an admirer of Lee Swee Keong’s work as a dancer-performer. He has invariably impressed with his focus and technical skill – primarily as a butoh exponent with Lena Ang’s feisty dance company (which unfortunately vanished from sight when she got married and emigrated, though she left Lee her artistic legacy). Indeed, the butoh influence remains clearly visible in Lee’s overall approach to movement, hence the stately, lethargic, zombiesque choreography. Lee is undoubtedly of shamanic (or perhaps extraterrestrial) lineage and has the power to draw attention – even adulation and awe – upon himself like any true magician.

However, magic has the power to liberate or entrap. On the cover of the souvenir program, the production was ingenuously described as “a scintillating gem by Lee Swee Keong.” Was that tongue-in-cheek? I don’t think so. As I picked up my tickets for the show I glanced at the poster and read a glowing endorsement by someone named Wish Teo… or was it Wishful Teo? Can paying audiences in Malaysia sue for misleading advertising, I wonder?

A very fine line between shaman & showman

In the case of A Cherry Bludgeoned, A Spirit Crushed, what ended up bludgeoned was my patience; and what ended up crushed were my hopes for an inspiring, stimulating, and enjoyable evening. A copy-and-paste collage of vaguely artistic postures does not the cutting edge in dance theater make.

1 December 2003

[Color images courtesy of Kelvin Tan]

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