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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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TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW!


Antares mulls over the enduring and endearing appeal of The Fantasticks

The death of a king is a pretty tough act to follow. Music Theatre’s restaging of THE FANTASTICKS was set to open on November 22nd (2001). But it was canceled in respect of the royal passing. It was a somewhat subdued turnout the next evening, but cast and orchestra pulled through like troopers. Indeed, the chemistry was pretty much right.

Why THE FANTASTICKS twice in Kuala Lumpur within months? What makes it the world’s longest running musical (more than 18,000 performances since May 1960)?

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Schmidt & Jones, aliens disguised as a Jewish songwriting team?

Tom Jones (book and lyrics) and Harvey Schmidt (music) got their inspiration from Les Romanesques by Edmond Rostand (of Cyrano de Bergerac fame). The title was rendered in English as The Fantasticks and the name stuck.

El Gallo

It’s a deceptively simple allegory of life and love: a boy and a girl, Matt and Luisa (or Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Candide and Cunegund, Adam and Eve); their manipulative fathers, Hucklebee and Bellomy, both avid gardeners; a Wall (portrayed by a whitefaced mute, doubling as prop-mover); a pair of buffoons in the tradition of commedia dell’arte or Laurel and Hardy; and a mysterious narrator/chorus/bandit named El Gallo (which means, in Spanish, The Cock).

This eclectic and magical mix of theatrical idioms forms a melodious and harmonious whole that weaves a wise and whimsical web of metaphors. Apart from Try To Remember, Schmidt’s tunes aren’t particularly memorable, but they’re catchy and vivacious – and Jones has a gift with rhymes (dependable and befriendable, children and bewilderin’). The storyline blends light and dark, gladness and sorrow, poetic irony and slapstick comedy, to highly agreeable effect.

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Philip Chai with
a cup of chai

As a callow youth in 1968 I caught THE FANTASTICKS in New York. It was truly… well, fantastick! In the 1970s I saw it again in Kuala Lumpur but the production left much to be desired. Now along comes Philip Chai, the Selangor Phil’s veteran wunderkind and co-founder of Music Theatrejust the right person to direct a credible version of this modest classic using local talent. His Hucklebee was smoothly accomplished and enacted with grand gusto; a perfect ploy for Liau Siau Suan’s lovable and believable Bellomy.

Alex Koh’s rich singing voice made his stage debut as Matt a marvelous success, although he could do with some loosening up as an actor. Luisa was perkily played by the pretty and petite Maria Gomez, a professional songstress, also making her debut in local theater. She did extremely well, I thought, for someone who is unaccustomed to singing without a mike (she sometimes had to struggle against the orchestra).

Sharizan Borhan

The same problem with recording artiste Sharizan Borhan, whose El Gallo might have been much more masterful had his voice been more audible, his moustache less detachable, and his shirt less shiny; but on the whole his performance was laudable, even if his youth proved a slight handicap in this demanding rôle.

Choreographer and champion figure-skater Peter Choo was impeccable as the multi-purpose Mute, elegant agent of Fate and efficient shifter of scenes and props. His remarkable focus physically anchored the action even as it helped raise the drama to the required heights of imaginative fancy. It was a sheer pleasure to watch him at work.

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The irrepressible
Sham Sunder Binwani

As Mortimer and Henry (the Ancient Actor), Lim Soon Heng and Sham Sunder Binwani very nearly stole the show. Both turned in priceless performances and brought the house down with their vaudeville antics. Their clever use of vernacular accents added an entirely new dimension to the boisterous hilarity of their scenes.

One particular sequence did not fully satisfy: when Matt turns his back on “virtue” to explore the sensual possibilities of “vice” – only to find demons flailing at his mortal flesh – his pain comes across as no more than a Punch & Judy act. Somehow the effect wasn’t quite right. The darkness held no terror, there was no edge to Matt’s agony, no sense of diabolical dread.

Nonetheless I gratefully surrendered to the quintessentially theatrical magic of THE FANTASTICKS as resurrected yet once more by the energetic and talented Philip Chai. A special round of applause to the orchestra consisting of Tay Tai Wee on piano, Joseph Arnesto on double bass, and Karen Ng on percussion. The original score called for a harp, but it wasn’t badly missed – though that certainly would have been a heavenly treat.

25 November 2001

BATTLING INSANITY WITH INANITY

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A riot broke out in Paris after the first word was uttered…

Antares celebrates the advent of pataphysical theater in Kuala Lumpur 

Alfred Jarry (1873~1907)

When Alfred Jarry’s “pataphysical” play, Ubu Roi, opened in Paris in 1896, a riot broke out after the first word was uttered – or so the legend goes. In any case, the show was forced to close on the second night because even more pandemonium ensued.

The only thing that broke out at the end of the Malaysian premiere of Ubu Roi was riotous applause. It would appear that 106 years down the line, KL theatergoers have been well primed by recent history for the scatological humor and pungent, surrealistic satire that informs Jarry’s pioneering effort in a style of theater generally labeled “Absurdist.” (In any event, after Shahnon Ahmad’s excremental novel, no Malaysian is likely to get overly agitated at the mention of pschitt.)

Alfred Jarry has been hailed as the progenitor of an artistic tradition of inspired inanity that has spawned the illustrious likes of Ionesco, Beckett, Brecht, the Dadaists, the Surrealists, Charles Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, the Goons, Harold Pinter, The Bonzo Dog Trouser Experience, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Frank Zappa, Richard Lester, and Douglas Adams.

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“Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi” by Joan Miró

Jarry himself lived a brief, intense and utterly eccentric existence, after blowing his inheritance on absinthe, ether and opium. At the tender age of 34 he was on his deathbed, surrounded by a small group of friends and admirers. The philosopher-poet’s not-so-famous last words, according to an apocryphal account, were: “I need a toothpick.” This elegantly sums up Jarry’s pataphysical credo.

ImageBut what, exactly, is pataphysics? Jarry himself defined it as “the science of imaginary solutions” – which only serves to further obfuscate. However, it’s interesting to learn that the Ubu character had its origins in a schoolboy skit written by the 15-year-old Jarry to lampoon a particularly pompous and obnoxious pedagogue.

Derision and ridicule have traditionally been the weapons of a non-violent, oppressed intelligentsia against a cruel and stupid but privileged mediocracy.  Those with sufficient insight to see through the wool pulled over our eyes by the puppet-masters and their spin-doctors invariably end up drinking hemlock like Socrates – or else they “lose their minds” like Nietzsche, Nijinsky, and Van Gogh. Alfred Jarry, whose pataphysical manifesto was a valiant attempt to laugh in the face of the false gods, Mammon and Moloch (read money and military might), perhaps succeeded in doing both.

In these apocalyptic times, pataphysics is one way we can cope with our own feelings of helplessness before the sheer imbecility, the intransigence, and the insatiable greed of our Ubuesque “leaders” and the insanity of their ego ambitions.

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Paul Loosley loses his stage directorial virginity

Ubu Roi was certainly a brilliant way for first-time stage director Paul Loosley to make a grand entrance on the local scene. As an award-winning commercial film director and creative consultant, Loosley brought with him a rich lode of nifty ideas, craftily implemented by a team of advertising professionals like costume designer Loh and production designer Lee Chuen Fai (with conceptual inputs from Loosley’s son Alexander, who majors in drama and stage design).

The director chose to stick pretty close to the text – inserting a bit of local color by throwing in some Cantonese and Malay dialogue. It would certainly have been more topical to rename Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu – Pak Ubi and Mak Ubi. King Wenceslas could have been rendered Raja Wheregotclass; Prince Boggerlas, Tunku Buggerlu; and Captain McNure, Kapitan Tahi. But, then, that might have brought it way too close to home. In any case, Loosley opted for a cartoon buffoon effect, emphasizing the more puerile aspects of Jarry’s work rather than his surreal sociopolitical commentary, thereby leaving the interpretation open to the audience and protecting the production from official censure.

The lavatory theme of the set was obviously inspired by the explosive first word of the play, Ubu’s favorite expletive: Pschitt! (A mime version of Ubu Roi directed by Milan Sladek in Köln back in the early 1990s opted for gigantic genitalia attached to Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu’s flesh-colored body stockings. Ubu’s throne was shaped like an enormous vulva, and the operatic “soundtrack” was created live by an a capella ensemble. Limitless are the ways in which to present Ubu, a play that resolutely refuses to take itself seriously, even though the subject matter is dead serious – based as it is on Shakespeare’s gothic tale of ambition, deceit, treachery and hubris, that so-called “Scottish play,” but set in Poland.)

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Ari Ratos as Pa Ubu

The plum rôle of Ubu went to Ari Ratos, who did a thoroughly magnificent job. Jerrica Lai made a deliciously lewd and lascivious Ma Ubu; hers was a broad, uninhibited, and extremely physical interpretation that did not entirely ring true (she came across more as Cat Woman than another variant of the Lady Macbeth archetype), though her performance was admirable and brave. As I emerged from the Actors Studio Theatre at Plaza Putra, artistic director Joe Hasham and executive producer Faridah Merican, who were on hand to greet everyone, transformed momentarily into Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu – and I was reminded that Ubu is really all of US.

Bernie Chan was a delightful scream as Rosemund (ah, she’s such a joy to watch on stage) and Na’a Murad turned in a turdlike Captain McNure (but such is his easygoing charm, nothing he does is ever shitty). Gavin Yap was immensely lively as Prince Boggerlas and had no trouble winning over the audience, even disguised as a chicken. Dennis Leong was electrifying as Heads, and wonderfully weird at every turn. His counterpart, Tails, was played by Gan Hui Yee for the most part in impassioned and rapid-fire Cantonese.

As Gyron, Sham Sunder Binwani had enormous impact but his most impressive feat was portraying a whole procession of aristocrats despatched “down the hatch” by the monstrously tyrannical Ubu Roi. Mark Stephan Felix’s Wenceslas was rather camp and visually striking, though I felt the characterization wasn’t fully explored.

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Deborah Strang & Alan Blumenthal in a 2006 production of Ubu Roi

Indeed, there were many elements in the production that could have been played to the max – especially in view of the mounting geopolitical madness – but were instead merely milked for sensational or comic effect.  However, seeing as how it was director Loosley’s maiden effort, much can be forgiven. Suffice for us to rejoice at and welcome the fresh inflow of new energy, resources and talent which promises more theatrical thrills further up the road.

Ever since I discovered Alfred Jarry and his Ubu plays in the early 1970s, I’ve been looking forward to seeing the advent of the pataphysical era in KL. Thirty years is a long wait, but it was well worth it.

27 October 2002

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