More Nightmare Than Dream

I seriously considered keeping mum about my strange reaction to this gaudy and raucous musical comedy put up by a bunch of youngsters who call themselves De Silva and The Theatre People. A member of the cast had taken pains to ensure that I came to review The Dream’s Nightmare. Sometimes you just don’t want to dampen eager young spirits.

The night before, I had sacrificed Soefira Jaafar’s Twelfth Night (which I badly wanted to see because I find all the different ways of doing Shakespeare interesting) to catch the last Acoustic Jam at the Commonwealth Club – a monthly showcase of young songwriters and cutting-edge bands – and was greatly energized by the promising new talent exploding in the alternative music scene. I was looking forward to getting more reassurance that fantastic things were happening in the arts despite the deadly stench of decay and deceit that we have grown accustomed to living with.

This is perhaps the second time I’ve actually walked out of a theatre midway through a performance. It’s definitely the first time I’m reviewing a production I didn’t even finish watching. Why? What WAS it that made me physically unable to bear another minute of The Dream’s Nightmare? I just wanted out of there pronto!

Were the actors all that bad? On the contrary, they all seemed to have heaps of potential, everyone was enthusiastic and unstinting in performance. Some were even good. And the costumes and lighting worked just fine. But they deserved a more serviceable vehicle for their boundless energy and talent.

Was it the singing and dancing then? Nope, that wasn’t particularly original or inspired, but it’s not easy to write a hit musical and I’m usually pretty tolerant of sincere efforts. Okay, there were more than a few moments that grated on the ear. I found the opening narration way too loud and invasive. But these are minor technical faults.

How about the central concept? Was there something “not quite right” about it? Writer-director-composer-lyricist­ actor (and costume designer) Mark Beau De Silva says it’s about the trials and tribulations of Hallucia, a pubescent dream living among terrifying nightmares in Nightmare Town. Hey, that sounds promising enough! Anyway, it was sort of like a student production – or at least it had the unmistakable feel of a class project put together by a few energetic and talented kids from a private college.

I’m not normally a nasty fellow and I don’t intend to be, so I hope no one involved in the production will take what I have to say too personally. I present my views as honest feedback, no offence intended. It’s all very well for a reviewer to walk out of a performance, but I feel accountable for my subjective reaction to the event and must somehow articulate why I couldn’t stand being in the theatre after a mere 30 minutes. I felt anguished and pained. What’s going on? Surely it couldn’t be due to insufficient sleep? My lovely companion had had a good night’s rest. She, too, expressed relief at not having to sit through the entire Nightmare.

Outside the Actors Studio Theatre at Dataran Merdeka, the still air was superheated. I felt the Sun microwave us as we walked across the scorching streets. For an instant I thought we might have leapt from a frying pan into the proverbial fire. But the thought of returning to the Nightmare propelled us post-haste through the steel and concrete inferno of KL.

“What do you think was ‘wrong’ with the show?” I asked her afterwards as we sipped cold drinks in a Thai restaurant. She knitted her noble brow and thought about it for a few moments. “Ummm… it somehow wasn’t in sync with anything.”

Now that’s a spot-on description, though somewhat vague. Let me attempt to elucidate this. The storyline was a rich lode of dramatic possibilities and allowed for wacky characters like Acnecia, Frieda Fright, Putrida, Mrs Miss, Uglina, Venom, Vile, Bed and Bugs. Sort of like Alice in Wonderland from the Addams Family meets the Wizard of Oz and the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the Little Shop of Horrors. So, it was a playful pastiche, a loose plot slapped together around a cluster of forgettable songs and a very thin and puerile script. That sort of thing can   be lots of good wholesome fun. Why didn’t this one take off?

Well, Mark Beau, I think you’re a phenomenally ambitious, gifted, and dynamic young man who has a great future in showbiz. But first you’ll have to make up for the education you never received in this glorious land of Mickey Mouse Institutes set up to groom young people for an illustrious career in advertising, marketing and PR. The fatuous script seemed to have been churned out by a novice copywriter to meet a brief for “inoffensive light entertainment with wide appeal.” It wasn’t something from deep within that you simply had to express. It was essentially an airing of your diverse and precocious talents – but without a legitimate core to its existence. It wasn’t a story with a living soul to call its own. There was no ring of truth to the endeavour. How does something like this happen? It can only happen in a culture afraid to be original, truthful, honest and real – for fear of being punished, for fear of being deemed unmarketable because the authorities might decide to ban it and then no corporate sponsors would touch it.

Imagine a world where songwriters produce nothing but jingles for jeans, 4X4s and soft drinks; where graphic designers do nothing but bargain posters and furniture catalogues; and where musicals are commissioned by corporate entities to celebrate their own prestige. That would definitely qualify as a cultural hell. Where artists believe in the bottom line and art has become nothing more than just another attractively packaged consumer product. No soul but lots of noisy style lah.

Tuan-tuan dan puan-puan, meet the amateur production from Hell! A lot of proud mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles (and perhaps a busload of loyal friends) will find my assessment of The Dream’s Nightmare unfair and unkind. I’d be interested to hear if anyone actually agrees with me. The house was more than half full and quite a few appeared to be enjoying the antics on stage. That’s the most worrying part, I think.


First Published: 19.03.2002 on Kakiseni

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