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  • December 16, 2004

By Pang Khee Teik

Again, many are shaking their heads at the dismal state of theatre this year. Nevermind the bad ticket sales, but where are the new original works? I missed Gavin Yap’s Wish I Were There and Life… Sdn Bhd 2, but managed to catch the three below, all original scripts in English (there were also Rohaizad Suaidi’s Ops Ophelia, which features equal parts Bahasa Melayu, and Bernice Chauly’s 31 Candles, a workshop production directed by Zahim Albakri). Here are my thoughts.

Life… Sdn Bhd

Presented by The Actors Studio

Script and dramaturgy by Joe Hasham, Directed by Faridah Merican

Apparently, the question going around after the staging of The Actors Studio’s first edition of Life…  Sdn Bhd is: Is it real theatre?

I think, any “real theatre” person who dares show his face around Bangsar with the phrase “real theatre” these days should have his “real theatre” license revoked. Having just seen Lee Swee Keong’s creepy, bewildering, protean Green Snake (in collaboration with Jo Kukathas}, I’d say, let’s have more unreal theatre, please!

So, it could be said that Life challenged some folks’ ideas of role-playing, costume-donning, accent-affecting theatre. A bunch of thespians took to the stage, not as characters, but as themselves, and told us stories from their lives – yes, such a goldmine of stories the lives of thespians must be. It was directed by Faridah Merican, who workshopped the actors, after which, hubby Joe Hasham, credited as scriptwriter and dramaturg, took these stories and shrink-wrapped them for public consumption.

An actor playing herself is not a new idea. And it is theatre, real or otherwise. But as the illusion of honesty becomes finer, the stakes also become higher. The actor must appear to lose her public image, her sense of security, her secrets, in order to win our empathy.

We the audience then approach without our Kevlar vest of belief suspension, ready to be shot in the heart. For an actor telling her own story is not unlike a rape victim at a support group. We know she survived, so that’s not the point. The act of telling itself becomes the story’s climax. As she steps up to tell her story, we are witnessing her courage, her catharsis. It is a powerful communal experience for both performer and audience.

In Life, with its colourful lighting and slick theatricality, I find the stories lacking in personal investment. Nothing seems to require much courage to share. Young actor Sharmaine Othman started reciting the number of rapes per year in Malaysia. She was reacting to the amount of rape cases in this country. But she had nothing personal to add to these data, and her recital successfully transformed rape victims into something even worse: Statistics.

Susan Lankaster told us she missed her late father. Some were moved, the same way we must be moved when celebrities on Oprah go, “Oh, you know, I like had a terrible childhood.” And we sniff at the thought that these enchanted creatures who had it all should suffer such a thing as a terrible childhood or a deceased father. But as personal monologues go, Susan failed to show where it really hurts, to show just how desperately she missed her father. Did she buy a car that reminded her of her father and then crash it? Did she date horrible men who looked like her father? I am not trying to be sadistic. Susan seems like a sweet gal, and has a warm stage presence. But if you dare to go up and say this much, you need to go all the way. Otherwise, it is just a generic plot outline for Reader’s Digest. It’s all too safe and easy.

Life Sdn Bhd claims it deals with what it means to be Malaysian. It would seem that to be Malaysian is to speak up without really daring to speak up at all. How true, that!

Just as particle physics scientist peel away quarks to find the mystery of the universe, theatre practitioners must peel away their skin to find the truth of our shared humanity. Faridah and Joe are masters of creating box-office entertainment, providing no small amount of envy to the rest of the theatre community. In Life Sdn Bhd, they have stumbled upon an experiment that sells. I just think they can afford to go further with the material, and help their actors peel, so that they don’t remain merely actors with actorly problems, but are shown to be fully neurotic, desperate, and in need of therapy, like the rest of us.

The best bit was Ari Ratos’s re-enactment of his accidental meeting with two pre-teen Malay girls at a bus stop, who plied him with innocent questions about his religion and the taste of pork. We shared Ari’s initial tentativeness and eventual warming up to this display of innocence. It is an innocence we know we have lost. Ari, at least, helped us see what is at stake for himself, and by extension, the whole country.

Flies & Foreigners

Presented by The Instant Café Theatre Company

Written by Ridzwan Othman, directed by Jo Kukathas

One of my favourite definitions of a director is: Someone who prevents the actors from making a fool of themselves on stage. One of my favourite definitions of a dramaturg is: Someone who protects the play from the director.

So what happens when the dramaturg is also the director?

According to Amir Muhammad, the person becomes a “Saboturg.”

So what does a dramaturg do to live up to this unpleasant-sounding moniker? In essence, she helps a production discover its fullest potential, usually as an aid to a director. When Jo Kukathas decided to be a dramaturg to help young playwrights discover the fullest potential of their play, it seemed a natural progression to be the director of these plays as well.

I had, two years ago, submitted a play of mine to this process. The feedback was valuable, but in the end, when my play wasn’t making progress, I took time off to work on other things. Meanwhile, Ridzwan Othman’s play went on to be staged.

When I first saw Flies & Foreigners at the Raise The Roof Forum by Instant Café Theatre, it was a workshop production. I enjoyed it tremendously. It was a dark comedy about a couple planning to get married. Showing how they deal with their fear of foreigners, the play painted Malaysians in painfully funny strokes. Someone who had read an earlier draft of the script, however, said he found the performance unnecessarily dark. I had not read it. To me, the play seemed funny and dark at the right places.

At the actual staging of the play, in June this year, I understood what my friend meant. Within the year, the playwright had done some polishing. New actors were found to replace those who could not return, and intensive rehearsals took place. But the intensity of their inward looking must have stagnated their creative juices. The resultant play was murky as brackish water: the dark comedy had become darker at the expense of its comedy. It wasn’t painfully funny anymore. Just painful. Watching Ghafir Akbar and Soefira Jaafar, who played the couple, internalise all their quips so deeply was scary. I was worried they would detonate and mess up my new shirt.

While Life suffered perhaps from a lack of self-reflexivity, Flies suffered from too much of it. Nobody I knew wanted to review the play. Jo is friend to many of us, and much admired, and so it filled us with incomprehension how she could have so misfired. Perhaps the master comedian herself needed a dramaturg to remind her: that the darkness of the human condition is sharpest when concealed with laughter.

Double Play

Presented by Stage Presence Playhouse

Written by Eddy Lee, Directed by Andre D’Cruz and Eddy Lee

I went for Double Play without much expectations. It’s not just the unimaginative title, the synopsis sounded like an exercise in cliches. In Instant Noodle, the first part of the double bill, a mother gets increasingly upset as her husband spends less time at home and more time with his mistress, “that woo lei ching!” (loose woman). It sounds like a million other Hong Kong TV serials. In the next part, Judgment Point, a dead couple, who were cheating on their lovers, find themselves having to account for their lives. It sounds like a million other school (and church) plays. Both are written by Eddy Lee, a lecturer by profession.

Because it was too close to home, Eddy wisely gave Instant Noodle to debuting director Andre D’Cruz, who is an actor otherwise. I was glad to find the play more interesting than I had expected. In the play, we saw only the wife, her daughter and the mother-in-law; the cause of all the drama, the husband and his ‘woo lei ching’ mistress, were happily cavorting offstage. The characters communicated, not to each other, but to other absent characters via phone. At one point, the 10-year-old daughter piped to her friend, “Hey, I also want to be a ‘woo lei ching’. No need to work lah!”

A play consisting only of monologues could result in indigestion. Andre, however, kept the pacing snappy and chewy, and in one segment, just chopped and sliced three scenes together into one. He sat the three actors (all newbies) together and had them talk in turn, as if at a dinner conversation, when they were all actually addressing their friends. The isolation was brilliantly executed. You could preserve meat with the coldness of that scene. Though some of his theatrics toward the end appeared clumsy, Andre had mostly gone for a minimalism that allowed the play to speak for itself. A stroke of genius, even if it was beginner’s luck.

In Judgment Point, however, Eddy’s weakness as a playwright showed up under his own direction. He tended to make his characters repeat themselves. Given his vaudeville direction style, these repetitions got grating quick. But thankfully, like Instant Noodle, the play proved far more intriguing than its initial premise. The dead lovers in question were sado-masochists whose love for each other resulted in each other’s death. And even in death, they were anti-establishment. It was diabolical.

So few plays have something interesting to say. But when they do, let’s not muddle their voices. It isn’t that there aren’t original scripts being written. Perhaps it is just time to find/ train/ make new directors. And more objective dramaturgs.

First Published: 16.12.2004 on Kakiseni