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INTESTINAL CONVULSIVE THERAPY

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Andrew Leci & Jo Kukathas: the driving force behind Instant Cafe Theatre

Antares braves the madding crowd at 12SI for some recycled laughs

Afdlin Shauki as your typical Umno member

Afdlin Shauki as your typical Umno member

An Instant Café Theatre performance is not usually something one reviews so much as raves about. No doubt the feisty and indestructible comedy company co-founded and led by Jo Kukathas has had its occasional off-key show and, more than once, has been found guilty of belaboring a point. Nonetheless ICT’s overall contribution to sanity, mental clarity, and public truthfulness in Dr M’s industrially besmogged but “ingat boleh” Malaysia is immeasurable, and must some sunny day be awarded a place of distinction in the Museum of Malaysian Satire (or at least acknowledged with a monumental biography).

ICT’s latest outing at a trendy dance club called Atmosphere (mainstay of the glitzy 12SI entertainment complex) was a mite disappointing to ardent fans but a major revelation to a whole new segment of celebrants hitherto unexposed to their bellyachingly funny, gutsy and therapeutic brand of political satire.

Nell Ng raging at a customer

Nell Ng raging at a customer

Most of the material was recycled from Millennium Jump and Mass Hysteria (ICT shows from the last two years). The classic ‘Umbrella Girls’ skit worked fine with guest star Joanne Kam Po Po (in her maiden spot with ICT) and the XX-tremely nubile Nell Ng – though it lacked the pep and sparkle of the original version (or maybe the comic impact begins to wear off after you’ve seen it four times).

The highly charged sodomy trial presided over by the unimpeachable Judge Mental Singh Gall (brought to uncanny life by a grotesquely bewigged Jo Kukathas) wherein the unfortunate traffic offender, Encik Baldev (played to pathetic perfection by Manesh Nesaratnam), is brought to Malaysian-style justice, resonated to the very core when first performed in 1999. It was still hilarious this time around but perhaps we’ve seen one sodomy trial too many – and they’ve all been equally assinine… oops, I mean asinine.

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Jo Kukathas

as Judge Mental Singh Gall

as Judge Mental Singh Gall

Guest of honor YB, Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Breaking Records, was invited on stage to poke fun at the Malaysian electorate for voting the likes of himself into public office. At question time, no memorable ones were asked but YB came well prepared with a few unforgettable answers: “Vhy the public unrest? Ve tell them to rest, rest, rest… uddervise ve arrest. Ho ho, ayam a joker, just like the peeyem!”

This leering, sneering Ubuesque deformity with the YB tag is shapeshifter Kukathas at her ugliest and sharpest. No one else can make being a career politician look so unappealing and vulgar. It’s sheer genius in the service of ultimate mediocrity. “Criticize, criticize…” hisses YB, his reptilian claws poised to strike like a pair of deadly cobras. “Criticize is all dose jealous forriners can do!”

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David Gomes provides the live music

And then she magically transforms into the alluring newsreader Wan Zanzi Wan Zanzibar, feeding song cues to Junji, Shanthini, and Maya for their barbed cabaret snippets, stoutly supported by jazz musician David Gomes on sequenced keyboards.

Patrick Teoh’s bulldoggish condo security guard, Khoo Kam Beng, is another durable character who deserves his own sitcom series. Manesh Nesaratnam plays Bacharan, his young sidekick and disciple who eagerly picks up pointers about whom to taruk (harass the upstart Chinese contractor in his Pajero) and whom to tabik (salute the Tan Sri’s influential mistress). Their tightly crafted skit ranks among the best that has emerged from the ICT repertoire. Contributing writers over the years include Kam Raslan, Na’a and Jit Murad, Andrew Leci, Huzir Sulaiman, Harith Iskandar, Puvan Selvanathan, and Jo Kukathas herself, but a great deal of detail is added by the performers themselves.

Maya Tan in action

Maya Tan in action

ICT has a long track record of spotting and roping in the nation’s top talent. Take Indi Nadarajah and Allan Perera, for instance, who started out providing a bit of musical support and ended up as Loga and Singam with their own Comedy Court productions. Recently, sound technician Reshmonu (who moonlights as a club DJ and up-and-coming rap artist with a hit in the charts) was coaxed on stage to play a funky soul brother from Sentul and perform his thambi gangsta rap alongside Manesh. This proved to be a big hit (especially with the women) and went down very well at Atmosphere. It should also help sell a few more copies of his debut album, MonuMental.

Reshmonu gangsta-rappin' Sentul-style

Reshmonu gangsta-rappin’ Sentul-style

Paula Malai Ali made her KL stage debut as Viola in ICT’s Twelfth Night and later graced their regular revues with her glamor-girl-next-door personality. In this instance she made a special guest appearance as Zelda Gratigano-Smythe, an “outrageously artsy fartsy independent foreign film producer trying to get her art film done in Bolehwood.” In competition with her for Malaysian government subsidies and perks is the tough-talking Hongkong movie mogul, Hieronimax Loo, masterfully portrayed by Patrick Teoh. Needless to say, Bolehwood opts for a Bollywood spectacular featuring a hit song and sensational dance number written and performed by Maya Arissa Abdullah (“Kuch Kuch Twin Towers Very High High Hai”).

Afdlin Shauki as kutu rocker

Afdlin Shauki as kutu rocker

Another priceless gem is Nell Ng’s cheongsam diva from old Shanghai who dreams of ensnaring a titled bumi entrepreneur, driving a Merc, securing a few lucrative contracts, and playing hostess with the mostest at halal banquets. She lipsynchs exquisitely to a hysterical spoof number (“Wang Bo Liau”) co-written and sung by the amazing Maya Abdullah aka Monita Tan.

The presence of Jit Murad and Zahim Albakri would, of course, have made it a gala night – but ICT has a knack of pulling it off no matter who happens to be in the cast. There are times when one is forced to sit back and ponder the dire possibility that Dr M may one day be forced to retire from the political stage. Come that day, ICT may be hard pressed to maintain its mirthful output, much of which is inspired by his monolithic management style and the sycophantic ethos it has spawned. However, that day seems to lie beyond a receding horizon. And, as any pessimist will gladly inform you, there’s always another clown waiting in the wings for a big break. In which case ICT is likely to go on forever.

@ 2001

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Yummy Airline Fare

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Ida Nerina

Ida Nerina

Yasmin Yaacob made her debut as a playwright in March 1999 with A Flight Delayed – a light, upbeat romantic comedy in the tradition of a whole slew of sparkling, witty “romcoms” from Hollywood that feature lovable, mildly neurotic couples portrayed by the likes of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Local theatergoers have to settle for Zahim Albakri and Ida Nerina, but I don’t hear any serious complaints.

But on the Tuesday I caught A Flight Delayed, both Zahim and Ida (as Jeff and Rin, a yuppie couple bound for New Zealand on vacation) took a while to snap into character. For some reason, neither of them seemed totally comfortable with their lines. Perhaps Zahim’s double role as actor AND director left him too little time to fully become Jeff Ahmad (brave new Malaysian workaholic adman, divorced and now going unsteady with a vivacious but emotionally insecure girlfriend). At any rate Zahim and Ida are both pretty enough, and experienced enough, to win over any audience within 10 minutes of walking onstage.

Actually I almost missed the flight: I hadn’t reserved a seat and the Actors Studio Theatre was packed to the rafters. That in itself is the best review any production can hope for. When people feel adequately entertained they’ll tell their friends about it. Still, a wee bit of nitpicking won’t hurt.

Zahim Albakri

Zahim Albakri

Okay, so the plot isn’t all that thick. But Yasmin Yaacob’s flair for dialogue lends the whole concoction the easy appeal of a strawberry sundae with whipped cream topping. Never mind that strawberry isn’t your typical Malaysian flavor; but then Yasmin isn’t your typical Malaysian either, having spent seven impressionable years in New Zealand while reading law. Her acquired cosmopolitanism is reflected in the play’s contemporary concerns. Affluence is what makes all the difference: Jeff and Rin are Melayu Baru yuppies from Bangsar who can afford to fly off to Kiwiland for some fun and fornication without having to dodge dirty minded goon squads from the Religious Department.

Here’s a totally modern, unmarried young Malay couple whose issues center around career, emotional commitment, and trust; they’ve outgrown the medieval concepts of khalwat and zina (close proximity and fornication are punishable offences in Muslim Malaysia under the Syariah laws). Even when a tudung-wearing traditional fellow passenger begins to poke her Melayu Lama nose into Rin’s affairs, she stops short of asking to see her marriage certificate.

Azean Irdawaty

Azean Irdawaty

Patrick Teoh

Patrick Teoh

Since the action takes place in a bustling international airport where all types converge, there’s plenty of scope for brilliant cameo performances from veterans like Patrick Teoh, who plays a burnt out high flying salesman with a mid-life crisis; and movie doyenne Azean Irdawaty, whose down to earth portrayal of Puan Fatimah, a funky makcik proved to be a real winner with the crowd.

Adriani Wahjanto, a promising newcomer to local theater, did a commendable job as Deena, Jeff’s sexy college chum; Ryan Lee Bhaskaran, at 12 the youngest in the cast, breezed through his part as the apple of Puan Fatimah’s eye; and Nell Ng charmed everybody as a wisecrack and toilet paper dispensing airport janitor.

In fact, the whole ensemble was pretty energetic and fairly disciplined: a testimony to Zahim Albakri’s sound directorial instincts and Mac Chan’s fast paced lighting. The frenetic, choreographed movements (by Lianna Leong) were effectively and efficiently used to change the tempo and rearrange the elegant set (by Adeline Ooi).

Nell Ng

Nell Ng

Ironically, the pacing went flabby only in several scenes where Zahim was interacting with Ida. Somehow the chemistry between them wasn’t entirely working, though it’s difficult to put one’s finger on exactly why certain exchanges didn’t quite come alive. I’ve heard reports that Iskandar Najmuddin did exceptionally well as Jeff in last year’s production; perhaps that’s why Zahim had trouble creating his own version of Jeff.

A Flight Delayed may not be the most original of plays, but it certainly has enough box-office appeal and wacky sophistication to warrant a movie version. Or at least several more extended runs. Already it has been included in the program of the Singapore Arts Festival 2000 in June and I don’t believe the selection was made entirely on the basis that the action is set in Changi Airport.

 

  24 February 2000

Marvelous Marathon of Mirth

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Harith Iskandar & Afdlin Shauki: fat funny fellows

Antares splits his sides (and meets old friends) at ACTORLYMPICS 

Oh, it’s good to spend a Sunday afternoon guffawing non-stop (though 150 minutes did seem a bit excessive towards the end). With a suave Patrick Teoh playing emcee or umpire, Afdlin Shauki, Harith Iskandar, Jit Murad, Jo Kukathas, Nell Ng, and Zahim Albakri treated KL audiences to another rousing round of theater sports (where everything is improvised).

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Nell Ng & Afdlin Shauki in action

They were absolutely brilliant, and you’d have to be a dullard to disagree. Bringing a whole new meaning to “thinking on your feet,” they winged it at high altitude, skydiving over Bangsar and taking the mickey out of the mouse. They performed on raw instinct, propelled by pure talent, driven by sheer wit. They had the audience completely enthralled and eating out of their hands. It’s tempting to try and recapture some of the highlights in a review, but you really had to be there to appreciate the inspired inanity of the performances.

(Okay, just to give you a taste of the hysterical goings-on: one event had the cast divided into two teams. Random props chosen by the backstage crew were handed to each team and they had to improvise short scenes using these props. A red plastic stool is offered to one team. Within 3 seconds, they’re improvising a scene at a clinic with the doctor saying: “Good! I see you’ve brought a stool sample!” That sort of thing. Virtually impossible to translate into mere words…)

Ladies and gentlemen, here are a few mutant Malaysians equipped with high-speed data-processing circuits, oodles of charisma and, most importantly, a healthy sense of humor and the ability to laugh at themselves. I’d entrust the entire country to their moisturized and slippery hands. Indeed, I’m proud to have witnessed their ascension to world-class comedy status.

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Afdlin Shauki

Afdlin Shauki first caught the public eye around 1990 when he starred in a self-penned production directed by Joe Hasham. It was evident even then that he was some sort of prodigy in the mode of John Belushi. He had enough promise as a singer to get signed up by Roslan Aziz along with Zainal Abidin and Amir Yussof. He honed his comedic skills in a series of Instant Café Theatre revues and was a great success in Huzir Sulaiman’s hit musical, Hip-Hopera. Recently he was seen as one of Mongkut’s courtiers in the movie, Anna and The King. For a while he toured with his R&B group, Acidiz, and recorded on his own label, Acid Rain, in between acting and directing engagements. Afdlin is a bona fide Malaysian showbiz success story and has never been known to make a foolish move [at least not until the year 2012, when he decided, much to my distress, to join a racist rightwing political party].

I remember Harith Iskandar’s early ventures into stand-up comedy at All That Jazz when he’d go on stage and try out his routine between sets by Rafique Rashid. It was obvious the man had the wherewithal to make it big in comedy. Later he tried his hand at filmmaking and directed Ella and Hans Isaac in a Malay feature called Hanya Kawan. As to be expected, Harith was cast as a neanderthal warrior in Anna and The King. He’s physically big but mentally agile and his comedic body language and timing are spot on.

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The one & only Jit Murad

There was a lady in the audience who told me it was her second time at the show, and she’d brought her family along. “I came to see Jit Murad,” she sighed, “I just love Jit!” I bet she wasn’t the only one who’s enamored of Jit’s inimitable charm and wit. I met Jit Murad back in the mid-1980s when he made his KL stage debut in Thor Kah Hoong’s seminal stage sitcom, Caught In The Middle. A couple of years later he played my son in Maureen Ten’s whimsical For The Time Being. Zahim Albakri was making his KL stage debut, too, as an angel assisting my transition from the physical world. Soon, Jit and Zahim were regularly seen on TV in a whole slew of Malay dramas.

Not surprising, as there was always a gaggle of giggly schoolgirls waiting outside the dressing room for Jit and Zahim at the end of each performance. No one had the heart to tell these girls they didn’t stand a chance in heaven of dating these pretty lads. When the Instant Café Theatre was inaugurated in 1989, Jit and Zahim were among the founder members, along with Jo Kukathas and Andrew Leci. Jit has since made a name for himself as a playwright, while Zahim branched out into directing with great success.

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Jo Kukathas

Ms Kukathas’s illustrious theater career warrants a 5,000-word article. She was an English teacher when I first met her through one of her colleagues. The next thing I knew, she was appearing in Caught In The Middle which is how she connected with Jit and Zahim. The enduring success of the Instant Café Theatre is largely due to Ms Kukathas’s superhuman drive and tenacity.

A few days before Actorlympics opened, she was hospitalized with bronchitis. I suppose that was when Zahim was roped in, just in case, but Jo Kukathas is such a trooper, she simply had to see it through. No one would have guessed she wasn’t in top physical form throughout the strenuous proceedings. That’s what I call dedication, though some might deem it a form of divine madness.

Nell Ng was playing bit parts only a few years ago, but her intensity and focus were clearly evident. And so were her consummate skills as a comedienne. She soon became a regular member of the Instant Café Theatre and confidently held her own among the veterans. For a while she worked the graveyard shift at a radio station as a deejay until she was offered a juicy rôle in a Singapore TV sitcom series. Baby star Nell Ng will be making her directorial debut in a series of skits produced by Faridah Merican and performed by a group of acting students.

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Patrick Teoh

Patrick Teoh I’ve known for over a quarter century when he was a producer with Rediffusion. Back then I kept urging him to get involved in theater and he’d shrug and say, “Don’t have the nerve, lah!” These days you can’t keep the man off the boards and a good thing too – he’s an absolute gem on stage, as well as on the screen!

These amazing talents deserve their own TV station, film company,  recording studio, theater, and unlimited funding… or, at least, no more reactionary bureaucratic impediments. We’d soon be exporting the best that Malaysia has to offer in the way of cultural artifacts. This is no laughing matter. The Beatles were awarded Orders of the British Empire (OBEs) for boosting the British economy during the 1960s. The fact that the Fab Four said, “Thanks, but no thanks!” and promptly returned their medals to the Queen is quite beside the point.

30 April 2002

Years of Laughing Dangerously

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Tudong Farewell with members of the Instant Cafe Theatre

Antares reviews Millennium Jump: Yet Another Millennium Approaches

The program cover says it all: down in the highrise condo parking lot, nine patriots have made a deep impression on the bitumen.  As law-abiding, non-rioting Malaysians, they have scrupulously avoided landing in a space marked “Kosongkan”‘ (‘Leave Empty’).  On the roof edge from which they presumably performed their death-denying Millennium Jump, we see a pair of reading glasses, a watch, a rubber slipper, a cellular phone, and the day’s edition of Boleh! (the “”semua boleh” paper) sporting the headline: “WIN RM1 MILLION!  U-Chump Sdn Bhd offers once-in-a-lifetime prize to first 100 Malaysians who jump off Pangsapuri De’Sin!”

Absurd?  That’s life in Dr Mahathir’s Malaysia for you!  Although the newspaper reading taxpayer may not be aware of this until he or she has had the opportunity to attend an Instant Café Theatre performance.  The fact that ICT’s pungent political satire has been tolerated for the past 11 years indicates that the company has attained the status of National Court Jester Laureate and, as such, enjoys comedic licence to lampoon everything and everyone in sight – even Samy Vellu and his legendary acts of “Lunasy.”

The doctor may not agree, but laughter is indeed the best medicine.  Maybe it won’t cure our social and political ills, but even the most repressed society needs to let off a little steam; and the growing success of the Instant Café Theatre can be held up as proof that democracy thrives in Malaysia, whether guided or misguided.  In any event, ICT certainly boleh.  Although getting on national TV still tak boleh. When unintelligence and mediocrity get you down, who do you call?  Instant Café Theatre!  When you feel there’s little prospect for genuine talent in this country and you begin to entertain thoughts of migrating, what do you do?  Go see ICT!

It’s remarkable how invigorating it is to watch all your frustrations ventilated right on stage by this remarkable and intrepid troupe of lovable jesters led by the Chaplinesque Jo Kukathas. The line between reality and satire gets extremely blurred at an ICT performance.  Malaysians can endure ECT (Electro-Convulsive Therapy or Electorate Control Technology) but can they handle ICT?

Those experiencing ICT for the very first time are understandably nervous about laughing too loud, for fear that the person sitting behind them may be a secret policeman on overtime. My problem, during the first half, was the free teh tarik we were offered before the show.  Its diuretic effect caused me to suppress my mirth for fear of bursting my plumbing.  In fact, after a while it actually hurt when I laughed.  And the laughs came thick and fast with the Bolehwood Golden Dugong Awards and the Ramadhan Rap and Only Money Matters (in which two deputy ministers, YB and Oy, played to pee-squirting perfection by Zahim Albakri and Jo Kukathas – are interviewed about party infighting). It was absolutely excruciating.  Good thing the unforgettable Umbrella Girls skit by Nell Ng and Chae Lian came after the intermission (don’t linger too long in the loo or you’ll miss the festive “Raya Carollers” in the foyer).

Nell Ng, Patrick Teoh & Chae Lian in “Umbrella Girls”

Rashid Salleh, a refreshing new face in the ICT lineup, delivered a definitive non-performance (as the Defence Minister’s nephew) guarding the armory in the divinely inspired Al-Ma’unah spoof. Patrick Teoh and Edwin R. Sumun were enlightening as Yoda and Luke in Election Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Voter. 

The immensely watchable Maya Arissa Abdullah, the very versatile Junji Gomes, and the wonderfully golden-voiced Shanthini Venugopal made up the rest of the superb cast in this production.  Lipraxedes Jumawan (better known as Dodong) performed his amazing “soundtrack” magic on keyboards. If national service were made mandatory in Malaysia, I would opt for a two-year stint with ICT rather than a couple of years under the ISA.

What’s the difference between a political satirist and a prisoner of conscience?  Their goals are essentially the same: to resensitize us to the malaise of our everyday milieu and prick our social conscience.  However, one does it through laughter while the other does it through tears. If you’re one of those unfortunates who has NEVER witnessed an ICT revue, I urge you to catch this jump before the millennium rolls over and dies.

I’m generally wary of using mobile phones, but so impressed was I with DiGi’s decision to sponsor Millennium Jump I found myself thinking: if ever I decide to communicate dangerously – and one has little choice really, in view of the dismal state of public phones – I’d pick their product as a show of support for corporations that support the arts without fear or favor.  What a privilege it is to be associated with the Instant Café Theatre Company!

Epilogue: On opening night there was a baldie in the 4th row who never laughed once.  Perhaps a wigless Samy Vellu had smuggled himself into the K. R. Soma Auditorium. The next day, some MIC flunkey actually cancelled the show.  Good ol’ Samy, he’s a regular showstopper.  But somehow the show goes on… at least till December 22nd.

9 December 2000

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