Gavin Yap may well be the best thing that’s happened to Malaysian theater since The Actors Studio set up shop. And to prove it isn’t on account of his devastating good looks alone, the 24-year-old thespian has turned playwright with Sweet Nothing – a high-powered exercise in neo-existentialism directed by that old master of in-your-face theatre, Joe Hasham (whose early directorial efforts, Norm and Ahmed and The Indian Wants The Bronx, remain vividly imprinted in theatergoers’ memories).
Picture Gavin Yap at 17 and the enormous impact that Quentin Tarantino’s stylish classic, Pulp Fiction, must have had on him. In his first outing as playwright, Yap appears to have extracted the two hitmen (urbanely portrayed by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) from the 1994 movie and made them into his own characters, Jeremiah and Elijah (note the biblical monikers).
Yap’s post-modern prophets of nihilism are given crisp, zen-like lines reminiscent of the stark dialogue in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist plays. Their masturbatory play with guns and the homosexual undertone of their quirky relationship reflect an adolescent fascination with death and the utter meaninglessness of existence. But the dialogue is definitely well-crafted and reveals a good ear for punchy exchanges.
Jeremiah and Elijah are each allowed a monologue explaining why they are the way they are. Both emerged from a childhood environment where violence ruled in place of love (censors who delight in snipping sex scenes while allowing all manner of brutal and violent behavior, please take note, you may unintentionally be helping to create future generations of Jeremiahs and Elijahs).
Elijah justifies his cold-blooded murder of the waitress Gabriella (fetchingly played by Caroline Moses) with: “Look at this place. It’s a shithouse. You call this a life? I looked in that girl’s eyes. She wasn’t happy. She didn’t have anything worth living for.”
This is the fin-de-siècle theology of the Apocalypse. The Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah and Elijah, have reincarnated as Angels of Death. And God is the Great Void, the Ultimate Nothingness, Shiva the Destroyer. Tough thinking and tough talk from a 24-year-old. But a valid worldview nonetheless, considering the state of human affairs on planet Earth.
When one first sets out to write anything, be it a poem, novel, or a play, it’s almost inevitable that one will be strongly influenced by one’s literary heroes. Therefore, the fact that Gavin’s playwriting debut is plainly derivative is in no way a criticism of his effort. Indeed, he has succeeded in crafting a suspenseful one-hour drama which keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. Joe Hasham is expert at creating dramatic tension between his actors and this worked sensationally with the material to generate an atmosphere of stark anxiety and raw primal passions.
Edwin Sumun’s Elijah is measured, sculpturesque, deadly as a malfunctioning android. As Jeremiah, Gavin Yap looked and spoke so much like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction I had to keep reminding myself I was in The Actors Studio Box watching a live play, not a rerun of Tarantino’s masterpiece. Now it’s not at all a bad thing to look and sound like John Travolta. Few guys can lay claim to such animal magnetism, and such genuine talent, not to mention the photogenic poster-boy features and the smoldering eyes. One of these days, everyone will be wanting to look and sound like Gavin Yap.
However, the most remarkable performance of all was that of Ari Ratos as the unfortunate and nameless cook. He didn’t have much to say. All he had to do was babble mindlessly in Hindi (the playwright had originally ordered Italian but that would have been way too Hollywood), and prepare to die at the hands of these neo-existentialist angels of death. Yet Ratos succeeded in encapsulating our collective fear of death (and our ultimate helplessness in the face of it) in one totally intense performance.
As the tears of terror rolled down his anguished face, he seemed to be asking the one question that must pop into every hapless victim’s mind: “WHY?” The late Leslie Dawson (who played a very similar role in his final play, The Indian Wants The Bronx by Israel Horovitz, would have bought Ari Ratos a stiff drink afterwards, I’m sure).
I applaud The Actors Studio’s Malaysian Playwright Series for giving new writing talent the opportunity to be staged, and take my hat off to Gavin Yap for having the guts to take up the challenge. Sweet Nothing may not have been such a “sweet” experience but it was certainly quite something. Bravo, Gavin!
6 August 2002 (pix by Antares)