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WAXING LYRICAL IN THE KITCHEN

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Anne James as Agnes Fernandez

Antares reviews Those Four Sisters Fernandez 

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The incredibly prodigious
Huzir Sulaiman

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.

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Sukania Venugopal

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.

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Eddy Chin

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.

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Sandra Sodhy

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.

Paula Malai Ali

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

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The Sound of Thunderous Applause

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At the awkward age of 15, suspended between a child’s ingenuous susceptibility to cuteness and whimsy ‑ and an adolescent’s desire to be cool and worldly wise ‑ I joined my parents at the Singapore film premiere of The Sound of Music. Of course, I enjoyed the experience; laughed and wept at all the appropriate moments, and thought Julie Andrews had wonderfully wholesome sex appeal.

As to be expected, cynicism soon set in ‑ and, inspired by the scathing critical putdowns of the musical’s unabashedly schmaltzy tone ‑ I soon took to chortling wickedly at corny feel‑good scenes underscored by that famous refrain, “The hills are alive/With the sound of music…”

But, secretly, I continued to believe in the possibility of a species of wholesome sex appeal which Julie Andrews so perfectly embodied. And I retained a healthy measure of respect for the collaborative musical genius of Messrs Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.

By the mid-1970s it was positively unhip to be caught singing along to middle‑aged, mainstream musical fare like those catchy tunes from The Sound Of Music. It was still permissible, of course, to shed a quiet tear or two in a darkened cinema while watching an equally uplifting musical like Lost Horizon. But, as a matter of principle, one did not go around thinking about staging a revival of The Sound of Music.

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The irascibly urbane Rehman Rashid as Captain von Trapp

So when I heard that the Philharmonic Society of Selangor was embarking on a collaborative effort with the Kuala Lumpur Symphony Orchestra to stage a full‑scale production of The Sound of Music in Kuala Lumpur, I didn’t react at all. Later, when I found out that the irascible Rehman Rashid had been offered the role of Captain von Trapp, I had to smile but I did resolve to see the show, if only for a good snigger.

Well, folks, either the age of cynicism is over ‑ or I’m not the crusty critic I once fancied myself to be. Under the masterful direction (dramatic and musical) of Philip Chai, this production of that well‑worn classic is simply splendid.

When something works so beautifully and goes down so easily, there isn’t really all that much one can say about it ‑ except that I had to stand up and contribute to the thunderous applause that greeted the curtain calls. Of course, one could mention all the ones who shone in their respective rôles ‑ and nitpick about the few that didn’t. One can commend the conscientious and totally satisfying costume and set design ‑ and the unobtrusive (and therefore perfectly effective) stage lighting, And, of course, put in a good word for conductor Eric Lee and the invisible but exceptionally disciplined and accomplished KL Symphony Orchestra (I still think the pit is way too deep at the City Hall Auditorium).

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Philip Chai, accomplished director

But, at the very least, one must point out that the real magic was in finding the perfect Maria in the very delightful and vivacious Adeline Goh ‑ and a consummate Captain von Trapp in the very impressive and believable Rehman Rashid.

Add to that, the best possible Mother Abbess in the expansive person of Sandra Sodhy, a memorable Max and commendable Baroness Schraeder in Eric Roslee and Mary George, a lovable and enthusiastic troupe of young and not‑so‑young Kinder von Trapp… and we have the makings of a completely successful local staging of an internationally acclaimed Broadway musical.

After this, I’m positive that there is now enough collective experience and talent in Malaysia for mainstream groups like the Phil to take on almost any of the Best‑Known Biggies. My Fair Lady? Boleh! Cats? Boleh! West Side Story? Boleh! Porgy and Bess? Boleh! In the sphere of theater, if not economics and politics, Malaysia definitely boleh!

Revivals of Broadway musicals may not be my preferred theatrical diet, but I for one have always been eager to see our “guys and dolls” from amateur theater circles mature into a professional phalanx of practitioners ‑ and after Thursday night’s special treat at the City Hall Auditorium, I have no doubt that we’ve arrived ‑ right at the turn of the century and a new millennium. For those who missed The Sound of Music the good news is that it will probably be restaged in February 2000. Perhaps this time in the gleaming new Panggung Negara?

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Sandra Sodhy as the
Mother Abbess

Pats on the back all around ‑ especially for the corporate sponsors who put up the hefty RM300,000 production budget. I’m sure the unbroken run of full houses is proof enough that theater, too, can be good business. But I hope present and future sponsors will be slightly more adventurous and occasionally underwrite productions that aren’t 100% mainstream, middle‑of‑the‑road, box‑office hits, We definitely need to hone the cutting edge if we wish to achieve excellence beyond repeating other people’s proven successes.

On a slightly darker note, I was pleased (in a perverse way) to note that there’s concealed subversion to be found even in the most innocuous theatrical fare. The rude intrusion of the Third Reich into Maria Rainer’s alpine world of sweetness, light, and innocence ‑ its violation of the Nonnberg Abbey’s rarefied sanctity and the quiet dignity of the von Trapp villa ‑ can be viewed as a classic dramatic device, a chiaroscuro effect that gives the otherwise fluffy storyline a dark, shadowy dimension ‑ I couldn’t help but feel how well it resonated with recent local events.

The Third Reich by Erafic

The sudden sinister turn, the ominous march of evil stealing suddenly upon the numinous domain of decent humanity, was particularly chilling as it evoked images of Gestapo torture, mindless robotism, the supremacy of the state, the rule of Might Is Right ‑ the ugly symptoms of a creeping fascism against which ordinary folk can only feel a sense of impotence and paralysis. The sort of abject powerlessness that breeds the ostrich‑like reactions of Max Detweiller and the Baroness Schraeder (who charmingly preach the “cornmonsense” of compromise and the “wisdom” of self‑interest and personal survival to a righteous, Hitler‑spurning Georg von Trapp).

And in the penultimate scene, as the ethereal grandeur of the Nonnberg Abbey chapel and graceful façade of the von Trapp villa are replaced by stark red banners emblazoned with black swastikas, I found myself silently reciting this little prayer: “God save us all, God save us all from the Barisan Nazi‑onal!”

20 August 1999

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