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Instant Latte Theatre

  • April 20, 2006
  • 4 Views

By Lainie Yeoh

ROJAK! ended with a shower of empty Marlboro boxes, several successfully aimed at my head — and one actually thwacked me in the eye. I reckon this is the only show I’ve been to where the reviewer was attacked before the review was written.

ROJAK!, presented by The Oral Stage with their young brood of multi-tasking writers-actors-directors, aged 17 to 25, ran from 13 – 16 April 2006 at Pentas 2, KLPac. I caught the Saturday matinee. It started as an afternoon of supposedly “dark” monologues and short plays — but it didn’t seem very dark to me at all. True to the title, however, it was quite a mix of topics, I’ll give The Oral Stage that much.

In fact, the only play that came off really “dark” was “The Damnation Recital” by Rauf Fadzillah (unless otherwise noted, most of the plays in this mixed bill are directed by 20-year-old Kelvin K. Wong, who also directed last year’s Oral Stage offering eight: {insert witty tagline here}). It was surreal, dramatic, confusing and frankly, made me wonder what on earth Rauf was smoking when he wrote that play (and where do I get some?). Fortunately art does not have to be completely understood to be appreciated. Reuben Kang did a good job as a schizophrenic young man, haunted by two inner (outer?) demons, a sinister teacher, and a psychotic banshee­-like mother. Occasionally the lines were overly-expository, and the extreme artsy-fartsiness of it all made me raise an eyebrow, but overall it was the most mature and conceptual attempt — I like that the disconcerting dialogue (something about a book which can’t be read, time which can’t be returned and mothers who can’t be placated) and menacing body language successfully discomforted me. I found myself still attempting to analyse parts of it hours after the show.

Another rather dark one which I like was “Couture”, written by Rachel Lai and Kelvin himself, in which mannequins come to life and assault hapless shoppers with female image stereotypes. Would you prefer to be The Fashionista, The Indie Rocker, or The Practical? If those three do not appeal, there is always the Insincere Pathos, clothes lovingly handmade from the wool of furry animals, or something dubiously cute like that. These mannequins — and the playwright — cunningly aimed their sales pitches to those wounds that open up after breaking up with your bastard of a boyfriend, bringing out the neurotic “Sex and The City” woman from within. But don’t get your life-changing haircut yet — retail therapy is sassier, sexier, and everything you want that he never was. I laughed as cloyingly sweet sales pitches degraded to catty and predatory snarling. The playwright seems to be making a comment on women who sadly resemble plastic mannequins with nothing to offer beyond the fashion wrapped around their bodies. Touché!

The rest of the plays in ROJAK!, however, were mostly light-hearted, occasionally ridiculous, and relied on stereotypes and cheap shots.

“Me Speak No French” by Doreen Loo, was a decent monologue performed by Emily Yoon, swirling her wine glass and mouthing off her invitees like a bitchy hostess from hell — no surprises when it was revealed that she was at her party alone. “A Very Happy Story”, written and directed by Patricia Low, played off the clichés associated with very happy families, constantly throwing us lines like “Remember your ABCs – Abstinence is better than Birth Control!” The fake smiles were annoying and unnecessary, as I think this obsession with perfection performed in utmost seriousness would have been creepier — after all, families who think they are happy are seriously creepy.

Sanjiv Ganeswaran’s stand-up-like routine “Who Wants To Be Malaysian?” was also easy enough to like — never mind that it wasn’t very theatrical and lacked a creative presentation. I can’t say all the jokes were witty: (something along the lines of “Which of the following are affected by increasing petrol prices? A: Roti canai. B: Teh tarik. C: Cili padi, and because we’re running out of time, Z: All of the Above”). Some were decent and many did get easy laughs from the audience, though I must say, none of them stood out as particularly memorable. It was like listening to the class clown in between lessons.

There were too many lines that seemed lifted straight off a newspaper headline or blog entry title — everything you need to know about the AP / petrol price issue in ten words and two puns or less. Did the youth of Malaysia not have any original insight to voice out? Here was the space! The opportunity to be heard! A chance to break from media hegemony and express an alternative point of view! But pity, they didn’t seem to have much of anything that had not been said before to offer the audience.

And so I yawned my way through “Print” and “Three Chairs and A Dead Man”, both written and directed by Patricia Low, “Boats Don’t Sink” written by Joyce Hooi and “Romanticisation” written by Prya Kulasegaran. “Print” was essentially a mamak chat transcribed into a play: “how’s your girlfriend”, “my potential mother-in-law is a pain”, “have you read about that headline?” blah blah blah blah. Similarly, I did not see the point behind ‘Three Chairs and A Dead Man”, which resembled a filler slotted in to round up the amount of acts to a nice number of ten. It was a funeral, with the Gossip Lady, the chauffeur’s son and the mistress. I waited to be surprised — something which did not happen.

“Boats Don’t Sink” has four actors shouting a lot, generally looking silly balancing on chairs, miming fishing on a sinking boat. It is about questioning authority. Smoke was used for this act, kicking up my allergies and making me grumpy. The irony was not lost on me when “Off Key”, about the anti-smoking campaign “Tak Nak”, was presented at the end of the show.

“Romanticisation” grappled with feminist ironies but I felt no empathy for the abused wife or delusional nurse, nor was I affected as she recounts how she was raped by her boyfriend. Sadly, I’ve been too desensitised by life and CNN to have much human interest for shallowly developed characters of woe — and to be distasteful about it, if I really wanted to, I’d rather pick up the newspapers and feed off the daily real life drama there instead. The words were boring, and strangely familiar. It all becomes clear as I look at the large WAO “Stop Violence Against Women” brochure stuck on my wall. It was as if the play was constructed from this very compilation of information and statistics. I look up “What to do if you are raped” — becoming delusional is not listed here.

The last of ten short plays, “Off Key”, written and directed by Kelvin K. Wong, was an entertaining 15 minutes of dissing the ineffectiveness of the “Tak Nak” campaign: “I’m not dumb, I bloody do know, tell me something that I don’t know!” This was interspersed by monologues from every member of the cast waxing lyrical about the beauty of smoking. “Rock cock”, anyone? I must say, being attacked by cigarette boxes did more to shower me with the message of health hazards than all of “Tak Nak” put together. Point taken, thank you.

Overall, ROJAK! came off like an ambitious high school play, where the combination of good and bad acts brought about an average playlist. There were too many flubbed lines, and they could have done with tighter editing and better scripts. Though it had its fun moments, some acts from ROJAK! became too sanctimonious and preachy. I may go to theatre to be engaged (oh, don’t thespians just love to “engage the audience”?), but I’m not certain I wanted to be subject to their blatant attempts at moral education. Art is not far from activism, but parts of ROJAK! felt like too much lite-activism and too little art.

I’m not saying all socially conscious writing is boring, or even — heavens forbid — unwelcome. In fact, I would have preferred the wide variety of issues discussed to be more in-depth and hard hitting, as opposed to the time­-wasting nancy smacks given. Many of them certainly didn’t leave an impact, and I left every bit as (im)moral and (un)socially conscious as I had been before I stepped into the theatre. Come on, tell me something that I don’t know.

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Lainie Yeoh is another blogger who just wants to be heard.

First Published: 20.04.2006 on Kakiseni