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TRIBAL TOTEMS & TABOOS – AND HOW TO BREAK FREE OF THEM!

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Antares catches Kee Thuan Chye’s epic Swordfish + Concubine

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Writer/producer/director  Kee Thuan Chye

As long as I’ve known journalist turned actor-playwright-author-director Kee Thuan Chye – and our friendship dates back more than three decades (including almost a decade when he “unfriended” me for bashing his 1992 staging of that infamous Scottish play) – he has struck me as a clear-headed, straight-talking sharpshooter who enjoys taking aim at all that’s mediocre, unjust and tyrannical. Whether through the written, spoken or dramatized word, Kee rarely beats about the bush. This makes his voice as a public intellectual good medicine for the national soul, even if subtlety is often sacrificed for accessibility.

This was once again evident in his latest theatrical production, Swordfish + Concubine, which marks Kee’s dramatic comeback after a long hiatus. Swordfish is an energetic, eclectic and electric take on an instructive tale recorded in Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals), wherein a precocious and perspicacious lad is deemed a potential threat to the mediocre powers-that-be and summarily executed. When I first came upon this fascinating folktale a long time ago, I saw it as a perfect metaphor for the intellectual and moral stagnation characteristic of feudal despotisms wherein tribal totems and taboos conveniently serve to dumb down the populace and keep them docile, servile, and blindly loyal to debauched and decadent overlords.

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Kee in his producer’s notes states that he has been shaping and reshaping this punchy parable for a good twenty years. Its first theatrical expression was in 2008 when Ivan Heng of  Wild Rice  staged it at the OCBC Singapore Theater Festival; three years later a revised version directed by Jonathan Lim was staged at Singapore’s Drama Center Black Box; and less than a year ago Swordfish was staged in Mandarin by Loh Kok Man at Pentas 2, KLPAC. So much effort has been channeled into molding this work because it’s a play that lends itself Lego-like to a variety of dramaturgic interpretations.

A bit of Brecht, a dash of Shakespeare, a whiff of Ionesco, throw in some Bangsawan and Wayang Kulit elements, insert some hip-hop  – and the result is an engaging mix of pungent satire, socio-political commentary, polemical theater and tragicomedy with a distinctly Malaysian flavor (even if the setting happens to be Singapura, an island off the Malayan peninsula once known as Temasek).

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With a dynamic, cohesive, ensemble cast of 12, a strong blend of experience and youth, and no prima donna roles, the action is a liquid, continuous flow – with dead bodies resurrecting themselves to reappear moments later in a different scene and costume changes occurring as if by magic. It wasn’t easy to keep track of the parade of personalities, as each performer played two or more characters. They had to act, sing, dance, fight and move props around as each scene merged into the next. But it was undoubtedly an enthusiastic, disciplined, focused and poignant ensemble performance – veering from commedia dell’arte style hijinks provided by Ris Kaw and Logod (the clownish “Greek” chorus, adroitly played by Iefiz Alaudin and Bella Rahim) to dark, dire and distressing theater noir (the public impalement of the Sultan’s concubine Nurhalisa, gut-wrenchingly portrayed by Hana Nadira).

As Hang Nadim, the young genius who suggested building a palisade of banana stems against the swarms of killer swordfish, Joel Timothy Low won the audience over from the outset, so that his cruel and unjust murder elicited vicarious outrage. Veteran actors Sandra Sodhy, Na’a Murad and Lam Ghooi Ket lent professional gravitas to each character they played, while the younger ones (Alfred Loh, Arief Hamizan, Amanda Ang, Qahar Adilah and Gregory Sze) gave vigor and vitality to the proceedings. As Sultan Iskandar Syah, Gregory Sze was marvelously narcissistic, vulnerable and schizoid, sentencing the woman he loved to death by impalement just so he wouldn’t be seen as a weak ruler. Alfred Loh’s portrayal of the inquisitorial trial judge was blood-curdlingly convincing; and Amanda Ang’s Tun Dara, Sultan Iskandar’s love-deprived official consort, was sensitive and poignant.

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Rhythm In Bronze (Jillian Ooi in the middle) Pic courtesy of Bella Rahim

A crucial dramatic element was the mesmerizing live “soundtrack” provided by the celebrated contemporary gamelan ensemble Rhythm In Bronze, under the masterful musical direction of Jillian Ooi and Teuku Umar Ilany (featuring guest percussionist Thong Yoong How). Indeed, almost everyone will agree that just listening to Rhythm In Bronze in action alone was worth the price of admission, they are that captivating. Choreographer Faillul Adam, costume designer Dominique Devorsine, and lighting/set designer Loh Kok Man deserve mention and a hearty round of applause for their excellent work on Swordfish + Concubine.

The political dimensions of Kee’s play are, of course, worthy of an academic treatise and everyone in the audience was electrified by the cogency and relevancy of his numerous allusions to the rotten state of affairs (at least in old Singapura, where the action takes place). All-too-familiar to us were the complacent, self-serving, sycophantic palace officials and ministers and their cunning machinations just to maintain their privileged positions and the corrupt status quo. The deification of royalty and the sanctification of “The Covenant” – a mythical Social Contract handed down from generations long gone – serve as tools of mass mind control, leading to cultural stagnation, abuse of the law, political paralysis, allowing criminals in public office unchallengeable impunity.

Setting up a “sovereign fund” and milking it for all its worth to support lavish lifestyles… the usual shenanigans that go unreported and unremarked in the muzzled media… arresting citizens for gathering without a permit in public places, charging them with sedition in the spurious name of stability and security… a secret police network payrolled by authoritarian paranoia… the very ingredients of a failed state once known as Temasek, now fallen into the hands of invaders.

But Swordfish + Concubine closes on an upbeat, optimistic note (“It’s time to rock, yo! And move to your own beat”) as the citizens begin to awake and embrace the possibility of – nay, the necessity for – radical, liberating change, a complete break from stultifying, toxic tradition.

4 November 2017

[First published in Eksentrika 4 November 2017. Production images courtesy of Pam Lim]

 

 

 

 

 

 

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AN UTTERLY HYSTERICAL BLAST!

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The latest incarnation of ATOMIC JAYA just concluded
a successful run in Singapore

Antares is radioactivated yet again by Huzir Sulaiman’s masterpiece, ATOMIC JAYA

Since March 1998 when Atomic Jaya first opened at the original Actors Studio Theatre (now reclaimed by the primordial ooze), too many things have gone badly for the world. So when something bucks the global trend of failure, destruction and disaster – when something goes very well indeed – it’s a call for huge celebration and rejoicing.

A sure sign that something is going very well indeed is when you see nothing but cheerful faces leaving their seats at intermission, and there are far more grins than frowns at the end of the show.

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Prodigious playwright/director/actor
Huzir Sulaiman

Okay, there were THREE members of the audience who made a major show of not enjoying one of the finest satires I’ve seen staged anywhere. Someone whispered that they were from City Hall, there to monitor the performance for offensive, subversive, or pornographic content. After the recent fiasco over its ill-advised attempt to ban the Instant Café Theatre from the city of KL (thanks, Mr Mayor, for speaking out on behalf of good sense and reversing the ban; I insert a round of applause for that silver lining on an inquisitorial dark cloud), it’s understandable that City Hall would be feeling defensive.

Keeping sewers clean, streets swept, and petty traders on their toes isn’t quite as glamorous or exciting as intimidating the fancy-talking faggoty arty-farty fringe. However, what one person labels “offensive” another calls “hilariously honest.” You have to really hate how you look to object so strenuously to your own reflection. Art’s primary function is to reflect our lives. Everyone ought to know that. Certain artistic approaches may work more like distorting mirrors but being able to laugh at your own comical aspects means your ego is healthy and comfortable with itself.

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Claire Wong as Mary Yuen,
Huzir Sulaiman as General Zulkifli

All true art is subversive, reclaiming for the individual the power the State constantly attempts to steal. Everyone knows that if art is subservient rather than subversive, most likely it’s mere corporate propaganda. And in response to the question of what constitutes “pornography,” all I can say is: “Honi soit qui mal y pense.” Evil to whomsoever thinks evil.

Enough! We won’t allow City Hall to steal the show, no matter how badly it wants in on the limelight. I want this to pass as a review, not just a rave. So how did I like Atomic Jaya’s new incarnation?

Enormously! The original version was more or less a 14-character monodrama: a litmus test of any actor’s ability, agility and nerve, sort of like tightrope-crossing Niagara Falls on a unicycle. This Checkpoint Theatre production features Claire Wong and Huzir Sulaiman on a breezy tandem ride through Bolehland – with crisp digital images meticulously crafted by director Casey Lim and flashed on a paper screen as a kinetic backdrop (the state-of-the-art, high-resolution Panasonic projector produced startlingly clear images). It also has Fahmi Fadzil playing a double rôle as a canteen makcik and patriotic singer.

While the original version was supercharged with manic intensity and a stark, dark surrealism, this new production heightens and broadens the comedy, thus increasing its entertainment value without detracting from the script’s satirical incisiveness. And in any case it’s doubly pleasurable to watch two consummate performers tackle the main characters instead of one.

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What gives Atomic Jaya a solid core of substance beyond the guffaws, sniggers and belly laughs is the play’s underlying seriousness as anthropological commentary. The fact that it opened in Kuala Lumpur on August 6th – on the 58th anniversary of Hiroshima, when 80,000 human lives were destroyed by an atomic bomb dropped by the United States Air Force, followed by another over Nagasaki three days later which decimated horrific thousands more – was a grim reminder to us all that we’re still living under a nuclear sword of Damocles (not “umbrella” as some may pretend).

The mind-boggling insanity of squandering trillions on an ongoing program of Mutual Assured Destruction – instead of redirecting every available resource towards the alleviation of suffering caused by simple lack – has its roots in the malignant human ego when it takes on exaggerated nationalistic proportions. Can the laser surgery of sharp-tongued humor excise the tumor of ruinous pride and megalomaniacal ambition?

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Explosive performance

Perhaps not, but weapons-grade satire produces a chain reaction of transcendental consciousness among those it infects with despair-banishing mirth. And even the deadliest strain of militant pomposity cannot withstand well-aimed ridicule, though it will try its damnedest to outlaw and suppress it.

On the strength of the three or four plays (and one short film, That Historical Feeling by the prolific Huzir Sulaiman) in which I’ve seen Claire Wong act, I’d place her amongst the top ranks in both hemispheres. The precision, sensitivity and vitality she infuses into each rôle makes her – like Jo Kukathas, who created the original characterizations – an extraordinary shapeshifter.

Who can forget her Dr Saiful from UKM (“Oh, you are discussing philosophy. Very interesting. For example, ‘Men are from Besut, Women are from Dungun.’ I also like philosophy.”)? Or her thumb-twiddling malapropic minister (“Why should we import the highly enriched Iranian? We already buy the Persian carpet and the Persian cat from the Iranian so they become highly enriched at our expense.”)?

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Claire Wong, consummate shapeshifter

In two seconds flat she visibly gained 200 pounds as former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “We have the might, and we have the right, and we will not hesitate to fight for the right to our might, and our might alone. Ask not what your country can do for you; rather, ask what our country can do to your country.”

But as nuclear physicist Dr Mary Yuen, Claire Wong was 100% the real McCoy. No problem passing her off as a Chinese Catholic girl from Ipoh who just happened to idolize Lord Rutherford, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and the entire subatomic pantheon.

Huzir Sulaiman was in top comic form as General Zulkifli (with his classic Napoleon Complex and unforgettable lines like, “I want to get to the bottom of this matter. Until the bottom is reached, the top cannot be happy.”); and the excitable Delhi Polytechnic graduate, Dr Ramachandran (“If you vant to take yumbrage, make sure this taking of yumbrage is correct and prahper. Yumbrage simply cannot be taken at vhim or vhimsy. You vill vaste the yumbrage.”)

He had a spot of trouble getting an exact fix on the extremely sleazy Mr Bala, and his Otto (the low-grade European) could have been further fine-tuned; but he outdid himself as a whole stream of newsreaders from the BBC, CNN and RTM – and as a police officer addressing a group of protestors (all 7 of them) with a loudhailer: “This is an illegal assembly. I order you to disperse. This is your first warning. Tangkap mereka semua.” An immortal characterization in only four lines.

Noraini, the canteen operator at Syarikat Perniagaan Atomic Jaya Sdn Bhd, was played in drag by Fahmi Fadzil who turned in a laudably restrained performance. Fahmi also did a superb job as a nattily besongkoked patriotic song-rendering robot, as instant palm trees waved in the electronically generated background.

ImageDirector Casey Lim’s wizardry with digital design is matched by a fine intuition for injecting just the right symbolism with almost subliminal subtlety. The choice of a solitary hibiscus flower (Malaysia’s national emblem) as central motif was an inspired one. Closeups of the stamen evoked understated phallic imagery and mimicked the mushroom cloud that would later dominate the entire backdrop with chilling effect. From nationalistic egocentricity to testosteronal displays of potency – just by changing camera angles on a hibiscus flower – pretty neat!

When all the elements of a play work together so efficiently (and with such apparent effortlessness) to produce an aesthetically satisfying synergetic gestalt, we are reminded that Creation is infinitely wise and perpetually self-perfecting. So what if the country or even the whole goddamn planet is temporarily in the hands of Sharkey and his perception-challenged henchmen?  The vision quest only makes sense and carries any value if it bears the ring of truth – and Huzir Sulaiman’s Atomic Jaya rings true for me. Go see it if you haven’t. And even if you have, go see it again!

8 August 2003 

ATOMIC JAYA restaged by students of Sunway College

Years of Laughing Dangerously

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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