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Theater of the Miraculous

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The utterly astonishing Jo Kukathas

The standing ovation Jo Kukathas received on opening night was well and truly deserved.  Theater – like human existence itself – can be a long, painful struggle punctuated and occasionally redeemed by epiphanies, peak experiences, profound revelations.

Kuali Works’ production of From Table Mountain To Teluk lntan was all of these and more. If only I could convey, without appearing to gush, the exultation, the tears, the laughter, the triumph, the palpable sense of awe and gratitude at having been present at one of those all-too-rare moments when the magic of theater attains to the miraculous.  If only I could find the words to express the poignancy of bearing witness to a nightmare ended and a dream fulfilled. Whose dream?  What nightmare?

Shahimah (Charmaine) Idris is a Cape Malay who left South Africa in 1981 to seek a less bigoted reality in Australia. There she met and married Malaysian artist Raja Azhar and birthed two lovely children, Norazam and Nadiah. The family moved to Malaysia and opened an art gallery. In 1997 – that ominous year when the Asian tigers lost their roar and we choked and gasped and saw no sky for months on end – a tragic “accident” befell Shahimah in an underground carpark: her spinal cord was badly injured in a knife attack which left her paralyzed from the waist down. Her attacker was never caught, but he was believed to be a bouncer in a nightclub who had once flashed her and been given a public tongue lashing by this fiery, pint-sized “victim.”

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The courageous Shahimah (right) seen here with a friend

It was a brutal act of vengeance motivated by thwarted lust which shattered her life like a tornado from hell. For Shahimah the long, painful struggle to regain physical, psychological and emotional wholeness – fighting off despair, frustration, and the very real fear that she would (as the doctors opined) never walk again, was a private ordeal that could only be ended and transcended by her going public with it.

Shahimah Idris decided to write a critical log of her life’s voyage, hoping to make sense of everything that had happened to her since she arrived on this fascinating but hostile planet. In February 1999, actor-playwright-director Ann Lee began collaborating on a playscript with Shahimah. Along with three others, Lee and Shahimah were founding partners of Kuali Works – an all-women arts company involved in theater, television, publications, seminars and workshops.

Sue Ingleton, intuitive director

Things began falling into place. Jo Kukathas agreed to play Shahimah (called Alia in the story) even before she read the first draft. Australian actor-writer-director Sue Ingleton, who had previously performed and conducted workshops in Kuala Lumpur, was invited to direct. Dynamic arts administrator Kathy Rowland was called in to produce. Five powerful women working together is certainly a cosmic force to be reckoned with.

I’ve always known that theater, like all the arts, has its roots in shamanism. But the glory-seeking human ego often hijacks the process. In this instance, as Jo Kukathas revealed, there was no egotism, nor were there primadonna displays.  Instead, there was a deep spiritual bonding amongst the collaborators that generated a tangible field of love, intelligence and creative wisdom.  From Table Mountain To Teluk Intan was undoubtedly a labor of love. Art from the heart, sacred stuff.

Sue Ingleton’s intuitive and judicious directorial input included creating a dramatic soundscape (with the help of ace audio engineer Wong Pek Fui) to complement the beautiful and brilliant simplicity of Carolyn Lau’s versatile set. (An arty video clip was projected at one point in the narrative but it was too fragmented to register except subliminally.)

ImageIllustrious lighting designer Mac Chan outdid himself on this production. We were illuminated by the sheer effectiveness and precision of Chan’s gobsmacking MRI (Magnetic Radiation Imaging) sequence which, for a minute, beamed the audience into a Star Trek reality… and then teleported us to Teluk Intan, to yet another manifestation of racial bigotry, prejudice and “tempurungism” Shahimah believed she’d left behind in South Africa.

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A personal & artistic triumph 

The reality within Reality that’s revealed only when disbelief is suspended: such synchronistic moments in theater can never be forgotten.  At one point a woman sitting in the front row (who occasionally obscured my view with her triangular hairdo) stood up unsteadily and reached for her crutches. Something went CLICK! in my brain. I was aware of a reality shift: the drama I was witnessing on stage was born of a trauma a real person had suffered and survived – more than survived, obviously. The real-life Alia aka Shahimah appeared a little overcome (and rightly so) watching Jo Kukathas re-enact her life – Capetown accent and all – while channeling a vivid cast of characters drawn from the playwright’s memory.  I had come to see the play without the slightest inkling of what it was about.  Realizing it was all about that feisty looking woman with the kooky hairdo was truly a powerful, profound revelation. It was very… dramatic.

Drama, trauma, Traum (which in German means dream): James Joyce called history a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. Theater began with mystery plays enacted by Eleusinian initiates for public cartharsis and healing (making whole). Entertainment was only the sugar-coating on the pill of social therapy. What are our lives if not a bunch of stories? And what are stories if not a record of our explorations in spacetime, a document of our quest for meaning and purpose and a sense of belonging? Shahimah Idris’s honesty of voice and resilience of spirit can only awaken us to our own.

Ann Lee collaborated
on the script

I have seen Jo Kukathas progress from strength to strength with each new challenge. But her artistic contact with director Sue Ingleton seems to have propelled her beyond technical mastery into a dramaturgical form of trance channeling. I couldn’t resist thinking that the amazing Jo Kukathas was serving as some sort of holographic portal for entities trapped in the collective unconscious. Her total surrender to the mediumistic task secures their release from time’s prison and therefore Alia/Shahimah’s too. Her agile, witty tongue and acrobatic physical movements in telling Alia’s story starkly underscored the helplessness and humiliation the wheelchair-bound and bed-ridden must feel. Ms Kukathas’s victorious performance was a monumental inspiration to all who have ever felt defeated by life.

For me, From Table Mountain To Teluk Intan peremptorily dismissed any niggling doubts I may have entertained about the therapeutic value of theater. Go see the play! If I had stars to hand out I’d give this one lots more than five.

October 2000

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Barbie Turns 40, Reinvents Herself

Antares ponders Deborah Michael’s Woman on the Couch

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Deborah Michael’s high school yearbook photo

She was called “Barbie Doll” as a kid. But Barbara grew up and became the archetypal all-American golden girl, a regular Sandra Dee, without a clue about life.

She gets negatively imprinted by a jerk named Dennis, with whom she maintains an abusive 8-year relationship. Then she falls for Daniel and ends up marrying him in fairy-tale fashion. Barbara becomes a mother, a housewife held captive by the humdrum and trivial. Neurosis sets in, big-time, a mid-life crisis compounded by a cancer diagnosis.

Barbara is Deborah Michael’s stage ego, a comic strip version of herself.

She even holds up thought balloons (big white discs with punchy one liners like: “I didn’t know what my potential was, I only knew I’d wasted it.”) and does a bad spoof of Mr Bean in a Malaysian wet market (presented as an amusing video sequence by James Lee).

Ms Michael has an MFA in acting but opted for the “safe” career of expat wife. Then she discovers there’s no real safety in any sort of existential rut, no refuge in comfortable domesticity from the call of the wild, no protection from ontological angst by living within the boundaries of the predictable. The abyss of the great Unknown beckons when she learns she has cancer.

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All grown up: Deborah Michael the actress/playwright

She recoils from the edge of despair with a heroic resolve to triumph over disease, death, decay, perennial anxiety about her figure, low self-esteem, and a drinking problem. Laboriously, she weaves a quilt of self-acceptance from memory fragments and hysterical episodes, under the intuitive tutelage of Sue Ingleton, an accomplished dramaturge from Melbourne with a deep involvement in shamanism and the healing power of theater. Ms Ingleton applies decades of theater savvy to shaping Barbara out of the clay of Deborah’s dysfunctional life.

With the help of lighting operator Eddie Eu and audio engineer Wong Pek Fui, she designs and constructs an evocative, superbly lit, karaoke soundscape in which Barbara can relive her childhood and adolescence. The mystical gamelan that runs like a stream through parts of Ms Michael’s monologue expresses the subtle influence of the exotic East (which puts her in touch with her own heart of darkness after 15 years in Malaysia) and underscores her encounter in Bali with a different order of spirituality.

As an actress, Deborah Michael walks the tightrope between comedy and tragedy with elegance and flair. It’s inspiring to witness her solo phoenix act as she resurrects her youthful dream of glory and acclaim (the high point of her youth was playing Cinderella in a school production; and the rest of her life has been a desperate attempt to reclaim the ecstasy of that moment).

The frustrated thespian finally frees herself from her fear of not being good enough, of being too fat, or being past her prime, or of shocking the neighbors with her naughty secret fantasies. And in the process she strikes a resounding blow against despair, a gnawing sense of failure, and the unavoidability of unfriendly fates. What unravels before us is the rebirth and transformation of a very beautiful human being on her private journey from bewilderment and benightedness to enlightenment and self-fulfilment.

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Spiritual growth, the cure for cancer?

The final scene is almost an epiphany as Barbara sheds the artificiality of her ‘Barbie Doll’ life and reveals her newborn goddesshood against a scintillating cosmic backdrop to the strains of celestial music. One regrets that the story is ended when it really ought to have begun from there.

On opening night Ms Michael’s performance was greeted with hearty applause from a warm and supportive audience of friends and theatre colleagues, all rooting for her success. They laughed uproariously at funny bits and cheered each time she scored a sardonic point. I thought her material was good but overly narcissistic, especially in the first half, and marveled at the insularity of her growing years in America. I also wondered why she glossed over what might have been the dramatic core of her story, her battle with cancer.

The seating in the Actors Studio Box wasn’t kind on my back, and there were a few moments when I felt imposed upon rather than drawn in by Barbara’s spiel. There are many more layers to Ms Michael’s core self than she’s ready to reveal, I thought, and that’s why she began the performance from behind the couch, cautiously peering out at the audience from under those cartoonish flip-up shades.

But what she did reveal was touchingly human, beyond her superficial Americanisms, and the least one could do was rejoice with Deborah Michael and celebrate the fact that she’d finally got her act together and performed it before a paying audience. Now that takes true grit, focused resolve, a giant leap of faith, and a healthy measure of genuine talent. Perhaps Deborah Michael’s message for us is that the only way to overcome one’s fear of ego death is to embrace life with a ferocious passion.

23 February 2002

Sharpshooting from the Hip

 

Bojana Novakovic & Sue Ingleton in The Female of the Species (2006)

Antares catches a hilarious earful at Sue Ingleton’s WYGIWYS

“What You Get Is What You See” is what Sue Ingleton calls her latest one-woman show, which features 80 minutes of her irreverent brand of power-packed, stand-up, bend-over, turn-inside-out-and-upside-down comedy. She might also have called it “What You Get Is What You Can Catch” – at least 10% of her high-velocity rap was lost on me, partly because of her fairly strong “Strine” accent (Ms Ingleton is from Melbourne), and partly because I was sitting too far back to read her lips.

But what I did catch provoked a great deal more than mirth. Ms Ingleton possesses a mind as sharp as her tongue is quick, and an indomitable female warrior’s spirit to boot. She covered a lot of ground at one go – sex, politics, and religion – oh, the standard curriculum of life; made merciless fun of men and their hangups (and hangdowns); beat the patriarchy into a bloody pulp, sliced it up and barbecued it over a low fire, and then served it up with a thick gravy of sublime ridicule. And she did it with such magnificent panache the men didn’t seem to mind at all (except for one elderly chap who staged an indignant walkout halfway through the show).

She started out as a creepy old crone in purdah (well, you could tell from her voice she was at least 98 years old), greeting the audience with a rubber honker in hand and cries of “Paper lama!” – all the while babbling away inanely. I suspect she would have done more with the purdah if it weren’t for the censorious presence of DBKL (Dewan Bandaraya, KL, aka City Hall, which recently canceled an extended run of The Vagina Monologues just because some busybody in Kedah, who hadn’t even seen the show, wrote a formal complaint).

Karen Loftus, beyond blonde

Then she whipped off the mock purdah and launched into a goodhumored spoof of Karen Loftus, the blonde sexbomb standup from L.A. who recently played KL. She displayed an impressive arsenal of vernacular accents telling us about Klang Valley taxi drivers she’s known. Her voice dropped a whole octave as she took the mickey out of the entire male gender.

I particularly enjoyed Ms Ingleton’s version of the Immaculate Conception in which the Virgin Mary sends her ‘gynie’ off to heaven to collect a cup of God’s sperm so she can conceive the holy infant. We don’t often get such provocative freedom of expression in local theater. A real breath of fresh air! Ms Ingleton comes from that venerable lineage of storytellers, bards, court jesters, and oracles who claim the right to say pretty damn much what they please and get away with it.

It takes more than mental acuity and verbal agility to pull off something like that.

Ms Ingleton is plugged right into the pulse of events. Her insights spring from the core of being human. Even as she cracks you up, she’s shedding more light on everything she rants about. It’s a bit like a ten-laughs-per-minute freeform philosophy lecture; you actually feel smarter at the end of her performance.

She summoned George Bush and Colin Powell on stage to make complete fools of themselves, and they gleefully complied. With a few basic props like spectacles, hats, and a coat (which she actually forgot to use), Ms Ingleton shapeshifted into a couple dozen characters and back with no apparent effort. She broached subjects long held taboo, like incest and polygamy; made fun of Mormons and Mammonists; waxed biological and mythological; demolished scientific materialism and several monarchies. All without a break or even a pause in between attacks.

She spoke of water and the moon and the magical properties of menstrual blood. Ancient goddess wisdom disguised as comedy. A wide-awake intelligence at work, sparking off fresh perceptions, jolting the audience out of its complacency, pushing it to the far boundaries of its comfort zone.

I’ve only come across one other purveyor of offbeat comedy from Down Under who’s anywhere near Sue Ingleton in terms of originality and impact: an amazing fellow named Tim Scally (also from Melbourne) whose “man with a flaming suitcase on his head” and “bucket of death” routines I shall never forget. Scally’s approach, however, is extremely physical and visceral, while Ingleton’s humor is mostly cerebral and verbal. Both, I believe, have at different times worked with Circus Oz.

A Porsche in your living room…

She ended her show with a little sermon on the laws of manifestation: “Be careful when you make a wish. You have to get the details just right. This friend of mine badly wanted a red Porsche, and she very nearly got herself killed when one came crashing right through her bedroom wall. She forgot to visualize the pleasure of owning a red Porsche, and driving it around. Now imagine some chap wishing he had a big fat prick… and suddenly finding Samy Vellu in his lap!”

Sue Ingleton’s sizzling solo performance – presented by the Instant Café Theatre and packed out the night I caught it – was her way of saying “cheerio for now” after several productive weeks in KL conducting workshops and directing Deborah Michael in Woman on the Couch. We’re indeed fortunate that this masterful dramaturge and totally magic mama seems to really enjoy her stints here. Her wealth of experience, boundless vitality, and enormous talent have inspired a great many local theater practitioners.

1 March 2002

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