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Yummy Airline Fare

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Ida Nerina

Ida Nerina

Yasmin Yaacob made her debut as a playwright in March 1999 with A Flight Delayed – a light, upbeat romantic comedy in the tradition of a whole slew of sparkling, witty “romcoms” from Hollywood that feature lovable, mildly neurotic couples portrayed by the likes of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Local theatergoers have to settle for Zahim Albakri and Ida Nerina, but I don’t hear any serious complaints.

But on the Tuesday I caught A Flight Delayed, both Zahim and Ida (as Jeff and Rin, a yuppie couple bound for New Zealand on vacation) took a while to snap into character. For some reason, neither of them seemed totally comfortable with their lines. Perhaps Zahim’s double role as actor AND director left him too little time to fully become Jeff Ahmad (brave new Malaysian workaholic adman, divorced and now going unsteady with a vivacious but emotionally insecure girlfriend). At any rate Zahim and Ida are both pretty enough, and experienced enough, to win over any audience within 10 minutes of walking onstage.

Actually I almost missed the flight: I hadn’t reserved a seat and the Actors Studio Theatre was packed to the rafters. That in itself is the best review any production can hope for. When people feel adequately entertained they’ll tell their friends about it. Still, a wee bit of nitpicking won’t hurt.

Zahim Albakri

Zahim Albakri

Okay, so the plot isn’t all that thick. But Yasmin Yaacob’s flair for dialogue lends the whole concoction the easy appeal of a strawberry sundae with whipped cream topping. Never mind that strawberry isn’t your typical Malaysian flavor; but then Yasmin isn’t your typical Malaysian either, having spent seven impressionable years in New Zealand while reading law. Her acquired cosmopolitanism is reflected in the play’s contemporary concerns. Affluence is what makes all the difference: Jeff and Rin are Melayu Baru yuppies from Bangsar who can afford to fly off to Kiwiland for some fun and fornication without having to dodge dirty minded goon squads from the Religious Department.

Here’s a totally modern, unmarried young Malay couple whose issues center around career, emotional commitment, and trust; they’ve outgrown the medieval concepts of khalwat and zina (close proximity and fornication are punishable offences in Muslim Malaysia under the Syariah laws). Even when a tudung-wearing traditional fellow passenger begins to poke her Melayu Lama nose into Rin’s affairs, she stops short of asking to see her marriage certificate.

Azean Irdawaty

Azean Irdawaty

Patrick Teoh

Patrick Teoh

Since the action takes place in a bustling international airport where all types converge, there’s plenty of scope for brilliant cameo performances from veterans like Patrick Teoh, who plays a burnt out high flying salesman with a mid-life crisis; and movie doyenne Azean Irdawaty, whose down to earth portrayal of Puan Fatimah, a funky makcik proved to be a real winner with the crowd.

Adriani Wahjanto, a promising newcomer to local theater, did a commendable job as Deena, Jeff’s sexy college chum; Ryan Lee Bhaskaran, at 12 the youngest in the cast, breezed through his part as the apple of Puan Fatimah’s eye; and Nell Ng charmed everybody as a wisecrack and toilet paper dispensing airport janitor.

In fact, the whole ensemble was pretty energetic and fairly disciplined: a testimony to Zahim Albakri’s sound directorial instincts and Mac Chan’s fast paced lighting. The frenetic, choreographed movements (by Lianna Leong) were effectively and efficiently used to change the tempo and rearrange the elegant set (by Adeline Ooi).

Nell Ng

Nell Ng

Ironically, the pacing went flabby only in several scenes where Zahim was interacting with Ida. Somehow the chemistry between them wasn’t entirely working, though it’s difficult to put one’s finger on exactly why certain exchanges didn’t quite come alive. I’ve heard reports that Iskandar Najmuddin did exceptionally well as Jeff in last year’s production; perhaps that’s why Zahim had trouble creating his own version of Jeff.

A Flight Delayed may not be the most original of plays, but it certainly has enough box-office appeal and wacky sophistication to warrant a movie version. Or at least several more extended runs. Already it has been included in the program of the Singapore Arts Festival 2000 in June and I don’t believe the selection was made entirely on the basis that the action is set in Changi Airport.

 

  24 February 2000

Marvelous Marathon of Mirth

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Harith Iskandar & Afdlin Shauki: fat funny fellows

Antares splits his sides (and meets old friends) at ACTORLYMPICS 

Oh, it’s good to spend a Sunday afternoon guffawing non-stop (though 150 minutes did seem a bit excessive towards the end). With a suave Patrick Teoh playing emcee or umpire, Afdlin Shauki, Harith Iskandar, Jit Murad, Jo Kukathas, Nell Ng, and Zahim Albakri treated KL audiences to another rousing round of theater sports (where everything is improvised).

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Nell Ng & Afdlin Shauki in action

They were absolutely brilliant, and you’d have to be a dullard to disagree. Bringing a whole new meaning to “thinking on your feet,” they winged it at high altitude, skydiving over Bangsar and taking the mickey out of the mouse. They performed on raw instinct, propelled by pure talent, driven by sheer wit. They had the audience completely enthralled and eating out of their hands. It’s tempting to try and recapture some of the highlights in a review, but you really had to be there to appreciate the inspired inanity of the performances.

(Okay, just to give you a taste of the hysterical goings-on: one event had the cast divided into two teams. Random props chosen by the backstage crew were handed to each team and they had to improvise short scenes using these props. A red plastic stool is offered to one team. Within 3 seconds, they’re improvising a scene at a clinic with the doctor saying: “Good! I see you’ve brought a stool sample!” That sort of thing. Virtually impossible to translate into mere words…)

Ladies and gentlemen, here are a few mutant Malaysians equipped with high-speed data-processing circuits, oodles of charisma and, most importantly, a healthy sense of humor and the ability to laugh at themselves. I’d entrust the entire country to their moisturized and slippery hands. Indeed, I’m proud to have witnessed their ascension to world-class comedy status.

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Afdlin Shauki

Afdlin Shauki first caught the public eye around 1990 when he starred in a self-penned production directed by Joe Hasham. It was evident even then that he was some sort of prodigy in the mode of John Belushi. He had enough promise as a singer to get signed up by Roslan Aziz along with Zainal Abidin and Amir Yussof. He honed his comedic skills in a series of Instant Café Theatre revues and was a great success in Huzir Sulaiman’s hit musical, Hip-Hopera. Recently he was seen as one of Mongkut’s courtiers in the movie, Anna and The King. For a while he toured with his R&B group, Acidiz, and recorded on his own label, Acid Rain, in between acting and directing engagements. Afdlin is a bona fide Malaysian showbiz success story and has never been known to make a foolish move [at least not until the year 2012, when he decided, much to my distress, to join a racist rightwing political party].

I remember Harith Iskandar’s early ventures into stand-up comedy at All That Jazz when he’d go on stage and try out his routine between sets by Rafique Rashid. It was obvious the man had the wherewithal to make it big in comedy. Later he tried his hand at filmmaking and directed Ella and Hans Isaac in a Malay feature called Hanya Kawan. As to be expected, Harith was cast as a neanderthal warrior in Anna and The King. He’s physically big but mentally agile and his comedic body language and timing are spot on.

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The one & only Jit Murad

There was a lady in the audience who told me it was her second time at the show, and she’d brought her family along. “I came to see Jit Murad,” she sighed, “I just love Jit!” I bet she wasn’t the only one who’s enamored of Jit’s inimitable charm and wit. I met Jit Murad back in the mid-1980s when he made his KL stage debut in Thor Kah Hoong’s seminal stage sitcom, Caught In The Middle. A couple of years later he played my son in Maureen Ten’s whimsical For The Time Being. Zahim Albakri was making his KL stage debut, too, as an angel assisting my transition from the physical world. Soon, Jit and Zahim were regularly seen on TV in a whole slew of Malay dramas.

Not surprising, as there was always a gaggle of giggly schoolgirls waiting outside the dressing room for Jit and Zahim at the end of each performance. No one had the heart to tell these girls they didn’t stand a chance in heaven of dating these pretty lads. When the Instant Café Theatre was inaugurated in 1989, Jit and Zahim were among the founder members, along with Jo Kukathas and Andrew Leci. Jit has since made a name for himself as a playwright, while Zahim branched out into directing with great success.

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Jo Kukathas

Ms Kukathas’s illustrious theater career warrants a 5,000-word article. She was an English teacher when I first met her through one of her colleagues. The next thing I knew, she was appearing in Caught In The Middle which is how she connected with Jit and Zahim. The enduring success of the Instant Café Theatre is largely due to Ms Kukathas’s superhuman drive and tenacity.

A few days before Actorlympics opened, she was hospitalized with bronchitis. I suppose that was when Zahim was roped in, just in case, but Jo Kukathas is such a trooper, she simply had to see it through. No one would have guessed she wasn’t in top physical form throughout the strenuous proceedings. That’s what I call dedication, though some might deem it a form of divine madness.

Nell Ng was playing bit parts only a few years ago, but her intensity and focus were clearly evident. And so were her consummate skills as a comedienne. She soon became a regular member of the Instant Café Theatre and confidently held her own among the veterans. For a while she worked the graveyard shift at a radio station as a deejay until she was offered a juicy rôle in a Singapore TV sitcom series. Baby star Nell Ng will be making her directorial debut in a series of skits produced by Faridah Merican and performed by a group of acting students.

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Patrick Teoh

Patrick Teoh I’ve known for over a quarter century when he was a producer with Rediffusion. Back then I kept urging him to get involved in theater and he’d shrug and say, “Don’t have the nerve, lah!” These days you can’t keep the man off the boards and a good thing too – he’s an absolute gem on stage, as well as on the screen!

These amazing talents deserve their own TV station, film company,  recording studio, theater, and unlimited funding… or, at least, no more reactionary bureaucratic impediments. We’d soon be exporting the best that Malaysia has to offer in the way of cultural artifacts. This is no laughing matter. The Beatles were awarded Orders of the British Empire (OBEs) for boosting the British economy during the 1960s. The fact that the Fab Four said, “Thanks, but no thanks!” and promptly returned their medals to the Queen is quite beside the point.

30 April 2002

Theater of the ARTiculate

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Yasmina Reza: cerebral chic

“Many people confuse information and meaning, which leads to a rather disturbing paradox: Our society has come to place an enormous value on information even though information itself can tell us nothing about value.” – Erik Davis in Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (1998)

Yasmina Reza is an exotic and gifted actress, novelist, and playwright.  Of Jewish-Hungarian parentage but domiciled in Paris, her cerebral tragicomedy of manners, Art, has won many coveted awards since it opened in 1994.  At 42 Ms Reza is undoubtedly a big-time international success.  She’s articulate, intelligent, poised and elegant – and stars like Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino clamor for rôles in her plays.

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Huzir Sulaiman

Art is decidedly a virtuoso play written for virtuoso performers.  Little wonder that local virtuoso Huzir Sulaiman decided to bring the play to KL audiences through his Straits Theatre Company, despite stiff performance royalties for staging current mainstream boxoffice hits.  It was a great opportunity to bring together the combined acting talents of three of Malaysia’s most outstanding young actors – Jit Murad, Zahim Albakri, and Huzir himself – under the sure (but by now predictable) hand of veteran director Krishen Jit whose task was certainly made easier by the fine quality of his cast.

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Zahim Albakri

As Serge, the dermatologist with upper-crust aspirations and enough ready cash to splurge on avant-garde art, Zahim Albakri was in superb form.  His was an affable, believable Serge – someone you might actually have met last week at a Kenny Hills dinner party.  Jit Murad as Marc, an acerbic, well-read aeronautical engineer with aesthetic dyspepsia, turned in an interesting performance – not that he wasn’t excellent, as usual, but there was a complex psychodynamic undercurrent between him and Zahim that at times exceeded their stage personas.  Yvan, a genial, ne’er-do-well Everyman marrying into the stationery business, was played to great comedic effect by the masterful Huzir Sulaiman.  The strength of Yasmina Reza’s play is, of course, the incredibly witty dialogue – brilliantly translated into English by that master playwright Christopher Hampton (who also translated Les Liaisons Dangereuses, recently staged in KL by The Actors Studio).

The Straits Theatre Company production of Art was unpretentious – with a functional, minimalist set by Paul Lau and quietly supportive lighting by Bernard Chauly Jr, enlivened by an aurally stimulating selection of musical inserts ear-picked by Huzir Sulaiman.  A “white” painting by Richard “Antrios” Lau (with barely discernible diagonal and horizontal lines in ever-so-subtle “greys” and “yellows”) is central to the entire premise of the play.  For what it’s worth, someone actually bought the canvas for an undisclosed amount after the play ended its run at the K.R. Soma Auditorium. Life imitates Art, I suppose.

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Jit Murad

The intricate psychodynamics of this 3-man tour de force of late 20th-century neo-existentialist drama has provoked a flood of literary and philosophical commentary (a fascinating analysis by the primitive-modernist painter Max Podstolski can be accessed here).

Like the “white” painting itself, Yasmina Reza’s inspired musings on the nature of friendships, the meaning and value of cultural artifacts, and the existential effeteness of our consumerist society bear many levels of interpretation.  The crafty playwright effectively blurs the lines between the profound and the trivial, the serious and the absurd, the eternal and the ephemeral.

Was it the most stimulating or thought-provoking play I’d ever seen?  Arguably not.  But from the moment Art began I was sucked into an irresistible vortex of pure enjoyment that reminded me that the ultimate value of theater is its power to educate and provoke through sheer entertainment.

28 June 2001

Years of Laughing Dangerously

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Tudong Farewell with members of the Instant Cafe Theatre

Antares reviews Millennium Jump: Yet Another Millennium Approaches

The program cover says it all: down in the highrise condo parking lot, nine patriots have made a deep impression on the bitumen.  As law-abiding, non-rioting Malaysians, they have scrupulously avoided landing in a space marked “Kosongkan”‘ (‘Leave Empty’).  On the roof edge from which they presumably performed their death-denying Millennium Jump, we see a pair of reading glasses, a watch, a rubber slipper, a cellular phone, and the day’s edition of Boleh! (the “”semua boleh” paper) sporting the headline: “WIN RM1 MILLION!  U-Chump Sdn Bhd offers once-in-a-lifetime prize to first 100 Malaysians who jump off Pangsapuri De’Sin!”

Absurd?  That’s life in Dr Mahathir’s Malaysia for you!  Although the newspaper reading taxpayer may not be aware of this until he or she has had the opportunity to attend an Instant Café Theatre performance.  The fact that ICT’s pungent political satire has been tolerated for the past 11 years indicates that the company has attained the status of National Court Jester Laureate and, as such, enjoys comedic licence to lampoon everything and everyone in sight – even Samy Vellu and his legendary acts of “Lunasy.”

The doctor may not agree, but laughter is indeed the best medicine.  Maybe it won’t cure our social and political ills, but even the most repressed society needs to let off a little steam; and the growing success of the Instant Café Theatre can be held up as proof that democracy thrives in Malaysia, whether guided or misguided.  In any event, ICT certainly boleh.  Although getting on national TV still tak boleh. When unintelligence and mediocrity get you down, who do you call?  Instant Café Theatre!  When you feel there’s little prospect for genuine talent in this country and you begin to entertain thoughts of migrating, what do you do?  Go see ICT!

It’s remarkable how invigorating it is to watch all your frustrations ventilated right on stage by this remarkable and intrepid troupe of lovable jesters led by the Chaplinesque Jo Kukathas. The line between reality and satire gets extremely blurred at an ICT performance.  Malaysians can endure ECT (Electro-Convulsive Therapy or Electorate Control Technology) but can they handle ICT?

Those experiencing ICT for the very first time are understandably nervous about laughing too loud, for fear that the person sitting behind them may be a secret policeman on overtime. My problem, during the first half, was the free teh tarik we were offered before the show.  Its diuretic effect caused me to suppress my mirth for fear of bursting my plumbing.  In fact, after a while it actually hurt when I laughed.  And the laughs came thick and fast with the Bolehwood Golden Dugong Awards and the Ramadhan Rap and Only Money Matters (in which two deputy ministers, YB and Oy, played to pee-squirting perfection by Zahim Albakri and Jo Kukathas – are interviewed about party infighting). It was absolutely excruciating.  Good thing the unforgettable Umbrella Girls skit by Nell Ng and Chae Lian came after the intermission (don’t linger too long in the loo or you’ll miss the festive “Raya Carollers” in the foyer).

Nell Ng, Patrick Teoh & Chae Lian in “Umbrella Girls”

Rashid Salleh, a refreshing new face in the ICT lineup, delivered a definitive non-performance (as the Defence Minister’s nephew) guarding the armory in the divinely inspired Al-Ma’unah spoof. Patrick Teoh and Edwin R. Sumun were enlightening as Yoda and Luke in Election Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Voter. 

The immensely watchable Maya Arissa Abdullah, the very versatile Junji Gomes, and the wonderfully golden-voiced Shanthini Venugopal made up the rest of the superb cast in this production.  Lipraxedes Jumawan (better known as Dodong) performed his amazing “soundtrack” magic on keyboards. If national service were made mandatory in Malaysia, I would opt for a two-year stint with ICT rather than a couple of years under the ISA.

What’s the difference between a political satirist and a prisoner of conscience?  Their goals are essentially the same: to resensitize us to the malaise of our everyday milieu and prick our social conscience.  However, one does it through laughter while the other does it through tears. If you’re one of those unfortunates who has NEVER witnessed an ICT revue, I urge you to catch this jump before the millennium rolls over and dies.

I’m generally wary of using mobile phones, but so impressed was I with DiGi’s decision to sponsor Millennium Jump I found myself thinking: if ever I decide to communicate dangerously – and one has little choice really, in view of the dismal state of public phones – I’d pick their product as a show of support for corporations that support the arts without fear or favor.  What a privilege it is to be associated with the Instant Café Theatre Company!

Epilogue: On opening night there was a baldie in the 4th row who never laughed once.  Perhaps a wigless Samy Vellu had smuggled himself into the K. R. Soma Auditorium. The next day, some MIC flunkey actually cancelled the show.  Good ol’ Samy, he’s a regular showstopper.  But somehow the show goes on… at least till December 22nd.

9 December 2000

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