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NOT EXACTLY WILDE BUT WACKY ENOUGH

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Oscar Wilde (1854 ~ 1900)

Antares leaves the wife at home for THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

The foyer of the Actors Studio Theater in Bangsar saw a festive crowd on opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest. It was a blessed relief after seeing so many empty houses at recent productions. Seems that Oscar Wilde is alive and well in KL. Last year, Rey Buono’s politically resonant staging of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde drew good houses on most nights. One might remark that poor mistreated Oscar, more than a century later, has become an alternative culture hero in the Wilde East.

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Director Joe Hasham

About three years ago, the phenomenal Ivan Heng cross-dressed on stage in Emily of Emerald Hill. Subsequently, Chowee Leow followed suit in his sophisticated one person show, An Occasional Orchid. Then Na’a Murad (and later Rashid Salleh) impersonated Charley’s Auntie in Richard Gardner’s popular adaptation for local stage and TV. The cross-dressing trend – or, rather, tradition, if we hearken back to norms in Chinese opera and Elizabethan theater – continues with Joe Hasham’s camped-up (per)version of Earnest, which has almost the entire male cast in partial drag.

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Edwin Sumun

Rashid Salleh showed some nice leg as Algernon Moncrieff but needed some work on his lines. Edwin Sumun’s Jack Worthing was infamously foppish and was served with a garnishing of Cantonese that sometimes distracted (or perhaps detracted?). Ari Ratos was a highly irregular scream as a conically enhanced and somewhat cartoonish Miss Prism, while Na’a Murad pretty much played himself as the libidinous Rev. Canon Chasuble. Ahmad Ramzani Ramli portrayed Lane (the valet) as some inscrutable Arabian Nights genie, oriental despot, or hotel commissionaire; and Sham Sunder Binwani’s Merriman was a big fat intrusive Chinaman with an intimidating pigtail.

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Indi Nadarajah & Allan Perera

The casting of Allan Perera and Indi Nadarajah (of Comedy Court fame) as Gwendolen Fairfax and Lady Bracknell was perhaps inspired by their wonderful work as Mertle and Thavi in MenApause. Both rose to the occasion admirably: Perera turned in a virtuoso performance as Miss Fairfax, and Nadarajah’s Lady Bracknell was hilariously (and headshakingly) aiyo-yo.

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Gavin Yap

But the Drag Princess of the Year award must surely go to Gavin Yap as the virginal Cecily Cardew. With his demure gestures, precise inflections and cygneous (swanlake) arabesques, he was delectable enough to kiss. He certainly could have fooled me on a blind date. Yap, recently returned from performing arts studies and work in the US and UK, is definitely a welcome infusion of genuine talent.

An acapella chorus consisting of five petite females – REAL ones, whatever that implies – with angelic voices and sadistic body extensions charmed whenever it sang, but otherwise became merely an accessory on stage – and a somewhat distracting one at that. The original music – credited to a mysterious “C.33” – was appropriate and competent enough, so I suspect the coy anonymity was prompted by work permit constraints (but I hope to stand corrected on this).

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Production designer Paul Loosley

Speaking of accessories, there was a lavish abundance of visual gewgaws adorning the set, thanks to Paul Loosley’s raucously rococo production design: larger-than-life nude statues suffering from acute sexual repression, mutant sunflowers, Beardsley prints, a conspicuous framed painting of an aging fop on an easel, mural-sized facsimiles of a 30,000-word letter from the imprisoned Oscar Wilde to his lover Bosie, and an overhanging photographic enlargement of Wilde’s visage with the eyes blanked out. Loosley (award-winning director of advertising films who started out as an art director) obviously set upon his assignment with unstinting fervor and inspired flair.

The artsy, eccentric set was complemented by outrageously flamboyant costumes designed by Loh, a veteran wardrobe stylist for the advertising industry. A lot of creative effort, it appears, went into this Actors Studio and Comedy Court co-production – much of it culled from the advertising world. It’s a very positive thing indeed to see talented individuals in adbiz venture into showbiz, but it’s almost inevitable that the dictates of one profession do not always translate successfully into the other. The advertising profession thrives on imitation, parody, sensationalism and quick bytes – which may not be such a wonderful thing in the literary or dramatic arts – at least not in the long run.

For sure I had a good time at Hasham’s Earnest. It was a great party trick to see Indi Nadarajah as an overbearing Victorian dowager with a distinctly Tamil personality, and Allan Perera as her alternately coquettish and petulant Eurasian daughter. The sheer novelty effect – and the famous comedy duo’s irresistible appeal – made it a worthwhile outing. However, the overcampification of Algernon and Jack added little to the gay subtext, even with vernacular accents thrown in – apart from the fact that homosexuality acknowledges no ethnic boundaries. At times, the puerile flippancy actually blunted the sardonic edge of the Wilde wit by reducing it to the level of a schoolboy skit.

I wouldn’t rate this production “important” or “earnest” but it was undeniably fun.

2002

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BUGGERY & SKULDUGGERY

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Oscar Wilde (1854~1900)

Antares is provoked by GROSS INDECENCY

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Moises Kaufman

Moises Kaufman’s multi-perspective courtroom drama, GROSS INDECENCY: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, was pulling in the crowds and winning the Critics’ Choice award for best play of 1998 – even as Malaysians were being titillated or outraged by their very own “Trial of the Century.”

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was found guilty of “gross immorality” and sentenced to two years’ hard labor at Reading Gaol.  A little over a century later, Anwar Ibrahim was accused of sodomy (among other offences), found guilty by patently partisan judges, and sentenced to fifteen years in Sungai Buloh Prison.  Anwar’s claim that there was a high-level conspiracy to topple him was meticulously ignored.

Wilde was a literary peacock and iconoclast; Anwar an orator and politician, but what both men had in common were their high public profiles, their growing influence on youth, and the perceived threat they represented to the Status Quo.  That both were accused of sodomy (“unnatural practices” or “sex against the natural order”) is indeed revealing.  For centuries, abstinence and celibacy in sexual matters had been promoted as godly virtues – but heterosexual sex within the legally, socially, or religiously sanctioned precincts of marriage was accepted (if only in the interest of procreation).

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Rey Buono

And yet snide reports of rampant pederasty within priestly, public school, and even parliamentary circles were hardly uncommon.  Buggery, after all, goes back as far as the Spartan Army and was a fact of Athenian and Roman life.  Socrates himself, while married to Xanthippe, had a passionate affair with an athletic and youthful male disciple named Alcibiades, and every self-respecting Roman senator had his favorite catamite.  And in Victorian England, closet homosexuality had reached near epidemic proportions, so much so that the day after Oscar Wilde was sentenced, more than 600 scions of the upper crust caught the boat to Calais.

Indeed, the nation was plagued by nasty rumors of buggery and skulduggery in high places to the extent that it became necessary to make a public example of Wilde, if only to reassure voters that all was well with the Empire.

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Jit Murad

Kaufman’s cunningly crafted script is a collage of text gleaned from news clippings, private letters, journal entries, original trial transcripts, and personal memoirs.  Bringing the philosophical and political subtext of Wilde’s trials and tribulations to dynamic life through ten actors, all male, and making it work as post-Brechtian theater was indeed a dramaturgical challenge that Kaufman met with aplomb.

The Instant Café Theatre production of GROSS INDECENCY directed by Rey Buono was staged in a nightclub (O*range), which effectively blurred the boundaries between actors and audience while adding a surreal edge to the proceedings.  Buono is to be heartily commended first of all for introducing KL audiences to this bitingly topical play; and for his confident, intelligent directorial hand, especially in working with the multi-tiered space; and lastly but not least for his illuminating program notes.

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Reza Zainal Abidin

The cast was, on the whole, very well chosen, but I was particularly impressed by the tremendous conviction Reza Zainal Abidin brought to his multiple rôles of Charles Parker and the Judge, and especially his queenly cameo of Victoria Regina.  Chacko Vadaketh excelled as Sir Edward Clarke, Wilde’s attorney (and little wonder, as Vadaketh was formerly a practicing lawyer from a prominent legal family).

As the rough-and-ready Marquess of Queensbury and a couple of other characters, Patrick Teoh turned in a powerful performance with a highly charged dynamic between him and his rebellious son Lord Alfred Douglas, elegantly portrayed by Chowee Leow.  To say that Edwin R. Sumun, Rashid Salleh, Shamser, Ghafir Akbar, and Kurt Crocker (as the academic pseudo, Martin Taylor) did justice to their rôles may be saying too little, but each certainly deserved an individual round of applause.

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Patrick Teoh

Which leads us to the casting of Jit Murad as Oscar Wilde.  I must admit I am still undecided about this pivotal element of Buono’s directorial vision.  Murad, a fabulous and much admired actor and playwright, was to many the obvious choice for Oscar.  After all, they appear to have much in common: both are known for their insouciant charm, irrepressible wit, and effervescent intelligence.  Indeed, there are some who regard Jit Murad as a Malaysian Oscar Wilde.  Perhaps it was the very obviousness of this casting option which, in the end, gave rise to a certain incongruity that subtly undermined the dramatic impact and intellectual gravity of the production.  Murad is such a distinctive personality in his own right that what transpired on stage was ‘The Three Trials of Jit Murad’ – not Oscar Wilde.

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Chacko Vadaketh

The aesthetic ethos embodied in the life and work of Oscar Wilde raised very important questions about art versus politics; private versus public mores; individual liberty versus the conformative forces of a hypocritical society.  To a large extent, Buono succeeded in spellbinding the KL audience with a courtroom spectacle that was in no part dull or slow-moving – indeed it was rather like déjà vu to anyone who has been following the farcical trials of Anwar Ibrahim.  In this instance, Murad’s eternally youthful good looks (and his exaggeratedly camp mannerisms) made his Wilde a bit too much of a flippant fop to be taken seriously as an aesthetic revolutionary or intellectual beacon.  The lightness of his physical being gave the lie to the weightiness of the philosophical cross Wilde had to bear.  I can’t help thinking that Murad would have been absolutely perfect cast as “Bosie” (Lord Alfred Douglas).

I emerged into the incandescent glow of the giant corncobs known as the Petronas Twin Towers, glad to have been part of this significant moment in local theater – when it appeared that the discreet but influential gay community of Kuala Lumpur had at last come together and declared their defiance of the fatwa against homosexuality implied in the vicious persecution of the erstwhile deputy prime minister for alleged acts of “gross indecency.”

And yet, will this event lead to the early release of Anwar Ibrahim and the dawn of a new, more enlightened, more compassionate era in Malaysian public life?  Or is all art quite useless, as Wilde himself incisively averred?

2 October 2001

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