Of Boys and Breath Mints

What kind of school has toughening-up camps that they force their “effeminate” students to attend? The kind of school located in front of a railway station that is known as a red light district? Or is this just the school playwright Shanon Shah went to?

The school in question is the setting of Shanon’s first full-length play, Air Con, set in an elite boys school in Kedah. The students and staff are shaken up when a mak nyah is found beaten to death at the railway station behind the student hostels. The school reacts by forcing the meeker of the students to attend a Jati Diri-type camp, to turn them into “real men” so they may avoid the same fate. The murder and the ensuing camp-time force six students to face up to their demons and come to terms with who they are, as their social support systems slowly unravel.

Air Con is the product of Instant Café Theatre’s FIRSTWoRKS playwright program, and some three years of hard work. The result is a three-hour-long (yes, I said three) two act play directed by Jo Kukathas and Zalfian Fuzi. The play takes you not only on a roller coaster of emotions, but also gives you a spin on the tea cups, the bumper cars, and the Solero Shot too! From laughing till your sides split open, to covering your mouth in shock, to squirming in your chair in discomfort, to attempting to subtly wipe away tears, Air Con has got it.

It isn’t just the way in which the play readily makes you cry, laugh, and feel disturbed all at the same time (a tricky feat, by any means). It’s the way the play is familiar to all, though not everyone has been in that kind of situation before.

It’s the kind of story we read about in the papers all the time. A body found, nobody cares; life goes on till we find another one. But this time things aren’t so simple. The body in question is that of the lover of head prefect and all-round good looking fler, Burn. The social network of Air Con is complex enough to make one’s head spin, but Shanon manages to weave the tricky web in good timing, so nobody gets left behind. Unless, that is, you have a lot of trouble with Kedah Malay, in which case, sorry.

If you are one of the unlucky few that didn’t get much out of the difficult surtitles, you should have at least been able to appreciate the impressive set. Though white from top to bottom, it was hardly bare. With set pieces with wheels to make scene transitioning a breeze, and swinging doors on either side of the stage, the versatile stage design set the scene perfectly for the rumble of the elite boys school.    ·

The story itself doesn’t sound particularly fascinating — the tagline reads “A school. A murder. A scandal.” The play isn’t a whodunit, though. It’s more of a whatisthisgonnadotomylife, and this is where the play gets its juice.

At the beginning of the play, the students can easily be divided into two groups: the so-called pondans, and the hockey players. But as the play progresses, the line blurs, and division starts to get messy. Making up the “pondan” group are Ryan Lee Bhaskaran as Asif (the lovable Chindian nerd that masturbates to beings in space, while constantly asserting his heterosexuality), Nick Davis as William (the boy-crazy best friend of Asif, and the victim of bullying), Hazarul Hasnain as Mona (the class suck-up that later declares himself straight and asks everyone to call him Nazrul), and Firdaus Che Yahaya as Mimi (the very flamboyant, very dirty-minded, and very loud flirt).

At the other end of the ring we have Zahiril Adzim (the head prefect and hockey star that everybody wants to be), and his best friend Amerul Affendi as Chep (the boy in school that nobody dares to cross, with an affection for his Burn that causes him to commit an unspeakable crime).

With most of their characters played to near perfection (especially Chep and Burn, but more on that later), it’s clear that these are not students conceived purely in Shanon’s mind. Everybody knows these kids. From their places in the secondary school social hierarchy, to the way Burn checks his fingernails during prayers, their characterisations can only be described as spot-on.

The rest of the cast, too, serve to impress, with Chew Kinwah hilarious as the air con repair man, and Nam Ron as the self-righteous Ustaz that wants to man up the boys with excessive ceramah agama, and Ismadi Wakiri as Cikgu Hensem (he goes by his nama glamour), the teacher we all had once, or at least wished we did. Then there was Dara Othman as Aishwarya Roberts, the mak nyah prostitute in question, who catches Burn’s heart, and torments him after her death.

Individually, each of the cast members shine. As an ensemble, they rule the school.

Yes, three hours is a long time, and yes, the seats in Pentas 2 are extremely uncomfortable. But no, the play was never boring, pointless, or repetitive. Well, except for the Aishwarya-Burn haunting sequences, that always featured the same grating whooshing sound effect. But other than that, the whole do is engaging, from start to finish.

For such a long play, of course it deals with several themes. The play addresses issues of religion, gender, sexuality, and race — that much is pretty clear from the get-go. But it also deals with the bigger and less discussed question of what makes us who we are. What makes each person so different from each other, and the way society perceives them?

Asif asks this question in a beautiful scene between him and Cikgu Hensem, where he recites a poem describing Icarus’ flight and fall. How can Icarus be blamed for wanting to fly so high? Why would a father give his son wings and then tell him not to fly too close to the sun? “Nobody tells Burn not to fly too close to the sun,” Asif laments.

Why? Because people like Burn simply do not fall? Or because people like Chep and Burn are groomed for greatness, and have infallible wings?

School plays an important part in the shaping of every individual, but what have we been shaped into? Men? Robots? And what are the consequences of these figures? Repression? Cruelty?

At the end of the play, when the disturbing truth of Chep and Burn’s relationship with Aishwarya has come to light, Asif and William stop to listen to a sound that only the Ustaz cannot make out. The future? Hope?

“What kind of school is this?” asks Asif. The kind of school that makes us hope Shanon Shah will continue to collaborate with Instant Café Theatre, and never stop writing plays.


First Published: 11.07.2008 on Kakiseni

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