Antares reviews Those Four Sisters Fernandez
At the ripe old age of 26, Huzir Sulaiman has written seven plays in three years. His first effort, Lazy Hazy Crazy, was a one-man comedy revue à la Instant Café Theatre; Atomic Jaya was a surreal political satire showcasing the consummate acting talent of Jo Kukathas. Huzir’s next venture, a romantic musical comedy titled Hip-Hopera, proved a box-office hit. Notes on Life & Love & Painting, The Smell of Language, and Election Day were dramatic monologues exploring art, megalomania, and neo-existentialism.
What’s remarkable about Huzir Sulaiman’s prolific output as a playwright is the consistent high quality of writing he has achieved. His latest outing, Those Four Sisters Fernandez – a tribute of sorts to his own Malayalee roots has in no way damaged this excellent track record; although in being translated to the stage Four Sisters came across more as a promising work-in-progress rather than another literary feather in Huzir’s cap.
I was reminded of Woody Allen’s 1986 film, Hannah and Her Sisters, a consummate Chekovian study of three Jewish American sisters and the complex dynamics of their interrelationships. Not quite so consummately, Huzir’s Four Sisters explores the psychodynamics of a Catholic Malayalee family brought together by calamity: the eldest Fernandez sister, Janet, falls into a coma and requires home nursing. The entire play is set in the kitchen of the Fernandez household, now presided over by Beatrice, the youngest, who’s married to a nice Chinese guy named Jeffrey. Janet, though comatose and invisible, is an omnipresent link to the Fernandez family’s past.
Helen is back on leave from her UN job in Geneva and the ancient antagonism between her and the spinsterish Agnes threatens to flare up. Over the years Helen has become cosmopolitan, cynical and worldly-wise while Agnes remains steeped in the Catholic Malayalee mystique. Beatrice, the amiable one, doesn’t seem to have any personal axe to grind, though she bears the brunt of keeping the household going. And she appears to be content with her marriage to the affable but lethally boring Jeffrey Tan.
Those Four Sisters Fernandez is literally a kitchen drama, though one is tempted to dub it a Krishen drama. Veteran director Krishen Jit (who happens to cohabit with a Catholic Malayalee) has generally shunned realism in theater for a post-Brechtian approach that favors stylized performances from his cast. In this instance he seems to have invoked the memory of the late Bosco D’Cruz (a well-loved Malayalee Catholic theater practitioner) who surely would have seized upon Huzir’s script with gusto, squeezing from it every drop of melodrama inherent in the lively, sparkling lines. But Krishen’s dramaturgical path has diverged too far from naturalistic theater for him to return to the genre without appearing a tad amateurish.
This was especially apparent whenever Jeffrey intruded into the kitchen. Eddy Chin’s Jeffrey Tan was a cross between Little Noddy and a bible camp instructor – innocuous and likeable enough, and his tenor-baritone voice was a pleasure to listen to – but there was something so patently stagey about his performance I kept wondering if the director was attempting to parody some of the Malayalee dramas he may have witnessed in the 1960s. Of course, it’s also possible that Chin (whose forte is opera) simply can’t act – in which case the blame must fall squarely on Krishen Jit for assigning him the rôle.
Suikania Venugopal, as Helen Fernandez, had the juiciest lines (“What would you have done, elope to romantic Rawang?”). Ms Venugopal played alcoholic inebriation to hilarious perfection in the Christmas booze-up scene, and turned in a valiant performance despite a severe cold that occasionally marred her audibility.
Anne James (the only bona fide Catholic Malayalee in the cast) was generally credible as the somewhat dour but stoical Agnes Fernandez – except on the occasions when she lapsed into a declamatory delivery of her lines. The playwright’s fondness for syntactical elegance may have caused some of Agnes’s verbal cadences to sound stilted. But it’s also possible that Anglophonic Malayalees have a tendency to wax lyrical in their own kitchens – particularly when confronted with siblings who have just returned from abroad with posh accents and snooty attitudes.
Beatrice is the blandest but best-adjusted of the four sisters Fernandez. Janet took over from Mama as family matriarch, but now that she’s in a coma, baby Beatrice comes into her own with good humor and a positive disposition. She even succeeds in producing a tastier Christmas roast. Sandra Sodhy turned in an admirably natural performance, despite her character being the least clearly defined of the lot.
The IKEA-furnished set designed by Paul Lau achieved new heights of naturalism and Mac Chan’s lighting was competently unobtrusive. But the Christmas party sound effects could have done with a touch more realism. In a play as claustrophobic as this, the sounds of a party raging offstage would have been a very welcome change of focus.
Alas, the effects were too perfunctory to fool the senses. Hmmm… and it would have been lovely if those four Fernandez girls had had a long-lost kid sister, played by another subspecies of Malayalee, the one and only… Paula Malai Ali. Poor Jeffrey would have had a stroke.
Compounding the mundane and predictable complexity of family politics with perplexity, Huzir inserts symbolic non sequitirs into the thickening plot: now why did Janet alter the date of her husband’s death from June 3rd to June 29th? Is there a hidden allusion to anal sex? And what was all that about the knife? Does this mean some family secrets will remain forever secret?
25 September 2003