Aunties In Agony

Penang playwright Mark Beau de Silva must have found his latest women characters from the Sunday market crowd: ordinary women who come along to the SPCA fair volunteering behind the stalls, women chatting on the benches along Gurney Drive in the mornings. They are not young but are dressed up gaily, with perm hairdos and make up. You do not find these kinds of women so much in KL – they have a matronly charm and an old fashioned air that not so much age them but put them in a slightly bygone era. Or maybe it is just that Penang is smaller and the public spaces here attract people from all walks of life. Sitting at Coffee Bean at Gurney Plaza in the mornings, the theatre unfolds before you – watching ladies and gentlemen line dance the salsa and mambo. You cannot help but think that it is some of these women that Mark Beau is portraying.

In Cheet Chat, staged in Greenhall Actors Studio, Penang (Fri 13 – Sun 15 Jan 2006), Mark Beau was very convincing, both as writer and actor. It actually took me a while to figure out he was actually a guy playing a woman (duh!). He epitomised the ordinary plain Jane, or Suzy as she is called here, an unmarried, misunderstood daughter, who chose to occupy her time with Catholic Church and direct selling. She finds strength in her friendship with Subbu (Janarthani Arumugam, not a guy playing a woman!), who endures an arranged marriage and children who don’t appreciate her.

Enter Siti, the wacky but endearing Indon cleaner (Ann Nurbaya, also not a guy). Suzy has the typical attitude of contempt towards Siti the maid. You only need to watch families out and about with their maids to be familiar with this. You can watch as mum changes her facial expression from gorgeous smile at daddy to fierce frown at the maid as she spouts sharp, little instructions to open the high chair or pick baby up. It’s a weird attitude towards people whom you expect to help you. But Siti is thick-skinned and dreams of being a singer. With the help of Subbu, they manage to soften Suzy and make her realise that they are all comrades really. Circumstance, family pressures and cultural ‘rules’ still define the lives of so many women.

I went into Cheet Chat with no idea of what to expect except that I thought it was going to be funny in a Malaysian Manglish slapstick kind of way. The shtick got them a little overexcited at times – their lines come out a little too fast once in a while and their singing could be better rehearsed. But here is my pet peeve with this play: it is well written and really did not need the overplayed slapstick to get it through the evening. The characters are real but it was a shame to see them sometimes portrayed as cartoon characters. As a woman, I really did not want to laugh at them.

Then again, it would have been easy to belittle this play as a slapstick local comedy and just judge it by the number of laughs it got. Instead Cheet Chat is an amusing but intimate look into the lives of three women controlled by circumstance, who take strength from their friendships. In the end, I found that I didn’t so much laugh out loud at the antics but gently smiled and nodded, an acknowledgement of the lives of the three Malaysian women portrayed in front of me.

Whilst I left Cheet Chat with a sense of solidarity for the women I met on stage, I left 12am the following week, also at Greenhall, slightly uncomfortable. Throughout the six stories of 12am I felt that I was peeping into very private moments.

As director, At Ziafrizani Chek Pa did a great job with adapting these American plays into Malaysian settings.   The actors were understated – in particular the husbands, who were just so husband-like in the most unattractive ‘Malaysian’ way! They were overweight, slobby, unshaven, in crumpled sarong and boxer shorts. Yuk! I went along with a girlfriend to see this show and for us, it was at times hilarious, not because it was obviously funny but because it was just so.

Watching the moments unfold in 12am, the discomfort arises during moments when something hits the spot, moments that probably everyone in the theatre who has had a relationship will understand. You suddenly realise that your own husband wears a crumpled sarong to bed and yes, his tummy is a little bigger than when we wed and shoot, I do walk around the bedroom with a green face mask on and my butt is bigger too! So yes, I did squirm through these short plays.

For me “Faro Rides Again” (by Allan Miller, performed by Mohd. Yusof Bakar and Fadzrina Ariffin) was hilarious. A husband can sometimes fib, make up a story just so that he doesn’t have to explain a bigger story but forgets that a wife cannot always let little stories go. In this case the ‘dead’ family dog did not bother the wife so much as the fact that it died on the sofa. The dog was not allowed on the sofa! “Sleeping Together” (by David Link, performed by Johanna W. and Ann Nurbaya) really captured that sense of sexual tension, discomfort and indecision that any new relationship has to go through. But this time between a lesbian and a ‘not sure’ girl. The audience were really made to feel uncomfortable; here and there were several awkward giggles as the lesbian tried to have it on with the ‘not sure’ girl she brought home.

“The Underachiever” (by Terry Kingsley-Smith, performed by Mohd. Yusof Bakar and Johanna W.) was interesting because the perception of success is not the same for everyone. Can a relationship succeed when two people have such different fundamental ideas? “Love Sonnet” was the one that really got to me. It started out so funny and touching – a mother’s love for her son – then blew up into something quite horrendous and tragic – a husband’s contempt for his wife. I live my life sure that my husband loves me and that we love our children – they are products of this love and there is nothing that would make me think otherwise. “Love Sonnet” (by Jerry Mayer, performed by Joanne TYC and Shah Zainal) captured in a second just how a few words can make that belief a thing to be totally ashamed of. It was stunning. The husband’s absolute hatred for his wife gave me goosebumps and she was suddenly such a pathetic creature. The audience was left silent and belittled by the performance. And I was left with tears in my eyes.

The actors here were good, very understated and restrained. There was no attempt at ‘campiness’ in trying to make the characters more ‘Malaysian’. At Ziafrizani Chek Pa as director has to be commended for this.

Both these productions benefited from the space or rather the lack of it, at Actors Studio Greenhall. It is a shame that 12am will not be going to KL after Cheet Chat, or even alongside it. They do compliment one another and provide a real insight into relationships in a very Malaysian context. I really hope both Mark Beau and At Zafrizani do more here in Penang, and there should definitely be more moving between Penang and KL.

I went into both productions with no expectations and came out with a lot to think about. I have a great marriage by the way, 20 years of love and passion. But we all may wonder at times: Where has that passion gone? Is my marriage ordinary? How did it get so ordinary? 12am does not offer any advise on how to make things better. But it was a little reminder to keep those sparks going!

Cheet Chat is restaged at Bangsar Actors Studio, KL, from Fri 10 – Sun 12 Feb 2006. Tel: 603-2094 9400


Rebecca Duckett is Malaysian, 43 years old, a wife and a mother of three.

First Published: 03.02.2006 on Kakiseni

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