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Production

Mentah 3: Barisan Puteri Puteri

Company

Teater Ekamatra

Reviewer

Kenneth Kwok

Date

18/05/2006

Time

8.00pm

Place

Guinness Theatre, The Substation

Rating

****

Three Times a Lady

I have to admit that I went in without very high expectations. Mentah 3 was, after all, billed as a showcase of new works by young writers, a couple of whom were presenting full-length plays for the first time. These young artistes would also be directing their own work. I expected earnest and heartfelt works-in-progress that, as the name of the series suggested, would be raw and unpolished.

Indeed, it was the strident conviction of the three playwrights' voices that I found most compelling as they commented on social issues close to their hearts as young Malay women and also simply as young and thinking Singaporeans. However, as it turned out, I also found myself deeply impressed by the craftsmanship of the scripts, the confident direction and the nuanced acting from the mixed cast of seasoned and amateur performers.

In fact, I thought that the standard of this production would put shows by many seasoned professionals to shame.

Faralina Ali's Tiga Wanita Atas Jeti or 3 Women on a Jetty (***) which opened the evening was essentially an extended conversation between three friends about their love lives and sexual adventures (or their lack thereof). They spoke about their desires, anxieties, fantasies and fears as Malay women entering their 30s in an age when sexual and gender mores within the Malay community are changing too quickly for some and still not quickly enough for others. The intimate scenario of three friends spending the night alone talking by the sea provided a believable context for the various Sex and the City-esque revelations the girls shared, and the script contained some genuinely funny gags. True, there was nothing earth-shakingly profound or new that was said and the presentation relied heavily on stock characters (the slut, the good girl and the fat girl) and textbook theatrical devices (spotlighted monologues to the audience, dream sequences, etc.) but this was balanced by a naturalness and ease in the dialogue and the invigorating sense of a writer speaking not just for herself but for others as well. The sitcom approach that Faralina Ali took is often underappreciated and is actually a lot harder to pull off than it seems, but she handled it better than many others I have seen. She kept the play constantly on its feet and moving, tripping only rarely.

While Tiga Wanita Atas Jeti was raunchy, raucous and fun, Fezhah Maznan's Cerita Si Sita Oleh Dia or The Story of Sita as Told by She (***1/2) was a very different animal. Like the first piece, it also spoke about the straitjackets that women find themselves confined by in our patriarchal society, but Fezhah Maznan's script was insistent, hard-hitting and angry instead. Cerita Si Sita Oleh Dia was told through three intercutting stories: a young woman who struggles against the expectations of her parents; a wife who discovers her husband is cheating on her; and, interestingly, the legendary Sita who remains true to her Lord Rama only for her devotion to be questioned when he finally returns to her after many years away. In this version, however, Sita stands up to Rama and refuses to take him back after she has proved her fidelity by dancing in fire at his request. This was an apt metaphor for the struggle the other women in the play go through to find the strength to stand up for themselves.

The script was well-served by the three actresses (especially Nur Suhaili Safari Wijaya), all of whom spoke the lines with such conviction it was as if they had written them themselves. But no, they had been written by undergrad Fezhan Maznan who certainly shows much potential. It is one thing to conceptualise an interesting or powerful idea; it is another to have the skill to bring it alive for the audience - and this is especially true when, as here, the characters largely speak in monologues. She also handled the interweaving narratives deftly, bringing them together and apart seamlessly with a good sense of structure and timing.

If the second piece was tighter than the first, then the final piece, Zizi Azah Abdul Majid's Bagaimana Kucing Jadi Gemuk? or How Did the Cat Get So Fat? (****1/2) continued the trend, being the strongest of the three and, indeed, one of the most outstanding pieces of local theatre I have seen. I was left awed by the power of Zizi Azah Abdul Majid's creative energies in her telling of the story of nine-year-old Fatimah who goes on a fantastical journey à la The Little Prince or Alice in Wonderland and meets a host of endearing characters. I particularly liked how the motif of hopscotch was playfully used to represent the girl's travels onstage, for example.

This one-woman show was a showcase for actress Siti Khalijah Zainal who not only proved adept at switching from one character to the next but, in her central role as the naïve Fatimah, had star quality and charisma to spare. You simply could not take your eyes off her cutsey-girl act as she bounded across the stage in her fairy-doll outfit. However, the script itself was strong enough to stand up to this expressive actor: Zizi Azah Abdul Majid managed to make her cartoon characters resonate so that the deceptively simple situations they found themselves in could be used to express the writer's feelings about the more complex aspects of our real lives. I also liked how she used the words in the national pledge (for example, "progress for our nation") as the theme for each of these vignettes. For the segment on "Religion", for example, the metaphor she used was that of a frustrated woman who is trapped in a bathroom full of taps, each one pouring out different types of water that are all too hot, too cold, too salty or too sweet for her. The parable was a genre suited to the writer because it played to her strengths, allowing her to take off on graceful flights of the imagination while still grappling with very real and earthy issues.

(My only gripe was that whereas in Cerita Si Sita Oleh Dia multimedia had been used to good effect - with close-up images of the women's faces proving moving and poignant - Bagaimana Kucing Jadi Gemuk? was intercut with images of an eye and a ear and voice-overs which I personally found distracting rather than complementary to the main action. The voice-over text, for example, was dreamy and wistful in a way that was at odds with the taut narrative and rounded tones of Fatimah's story. When you have a character - and an actress - as compelling as that, you do not need anything more.)

I left the theatre thinking to myself that if this is the future of local theatre, then it looks very bright indeed. Kudos to Teater Ekamatra's Playwright Mentorship Programme for discovering such talents and giving them the guidance (under seasoned director/actor Aidli Alin Mosbit) and the platform to showcase their works to a public audience.


"If this is the future of local theatre, then it looks very bright indeed"

Credits

Facilitator: Aidli "Alin" Mosbit

Writer/Directors: Faralina Ali, Fezhah Maznan and Zizi Azah Abdul Majid

Cast: Gloria Tan, Nur Awal'liyah Ja'afar, Siti Zuraida Abdul Rahim, Muhammad Najib Bin Soiman, Elnie S Mashari, Nur Suhaili Safari Wijaya, Molizah Mohd Mohter and Siti Khalijah Zainal

Producers: Anuar Mohd and Muhamad Jamal Muhamad

Stage Manager: Muhamad Jamal Muhamad

Assistant Stage Manager: Zahidah Md Said

Lighting Designer: Zizi Azah Abdul Majid

Sound Designer: Zulkifle Mahmod

Graphic Designer: Mohd Fared Jainal

Crew: Mohamad Zulfadli Mohd Rashid and Sufyan Mohd Noh

Previous Productions by Teater Ekamatra
Impenjarament (Matthew Lyon)
Pesta Peti Putih (Musa Fazal)

More Reviews by Kenneth Kwok

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.