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Production

Ma'ma Yong - About Nothing Much To Do

Company

panggung Arts

Reviewer

Kenneth Kwok

Date

18/05/2008

Time

3.00pm

Place

Play Den, The Arts House

Rating

***1/2

Mamma Mia, How Can I Resist You?

panggung Arts' rip-roaring musical comedy Ma'Ma Yong - About Nothing Much To Do reminded me of Theatre Practice's recent production The Soldier and His Virtuous Wife: both plays employed traditional art forms not only for their own sake but also to be affectionately played around with for comic effect. A couple of scenes from the play were presented in the form of wayang kulit, for example, but while one of the puppets was designed in the traditional fashion, the other was a western cartoon-styled caricature - and I certainly did not expect them to jump on each other and start simulating sex! The best comedy is that nvolving the unanticipated and so in a play where everyone is dressed in clothing with strong ethnic influences and are speaking in Malay, laughter is also the only possible response when, in a dramatic scene, one of the actors who is a non-Malay speaking Chinese suddenly breaks out of character and complains that she needs cue cards to remember how to say her lines phonetically.

Such playful irreverence created a wonderful feeling of inclusion for those off-stage as well as on it. It felt like everyone was in on the joke, everyone was being invited to join in the fun and have a good time.

Unfortunately, the story, supposedly about how a production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is being staged by patients in a psychiatric ward under the direction of Fatimah, a former English Literature teacher, then became almost irrelevant as the audience was always just waiting for the next punch-line. To be honest, I was quite lost about who was who and doing what to whom: all the names of the characters had been changed to unfamiliar local ones so I couldn't remember which Ma'ma Yong character was supposed to be the equivalent of which Much Ado character, and actors not only played multiple parts but sometimes broke the fourth wall to interact with the audience as actors rather than characters as well. The script of Ma'ma Yong also wove in and out of the staging of Much Ado, incorporating as it did scenes of Fatimah as a teacher in a classroom or being examined by a doctor as well as a segment where the actors enacted advertisements as a break in the play. Further adding to this whirlwind of activity was the rousing live music from the band GeRentak which was often accompanied by the actors suddenly launching into lively Malay dance sequences. The frenetic pace of the production made my head spin but it also meant I was seldom bored: there was always something to entertain me and if something wasn't entertaining (the pointless opening monologue by Fatimah's doctor, for example, which was confusing rather than comic), it would soon segue into something that was.

Credit goes to director Muhd Najib Soiman for pulling all these disparate elements together. Things were still a little messy but less so than if in less capable hands. His own unwieldy script was generally kept light on its feet by confident direction and a strong creative vision. The clever use of theatre space, for example, to move the sprawling cast around a very tight space showed that a lot of care had gone into the production. At times, the otherwise witty play did feel a little desperate for cheap laughs, as such comedies sometimes do, but, by and large, I felt that Najib had things under control so that the actors did not go too far in pandering to the audience, especially when engaging in slapstick or ad libbing.

I really liked the exuberance of the cast which was so genuine as to be truly infectious but want to praise them in particular for their strong sense of team spirit which was palpable throughout the performance. There was a real sense of family between the actors and even with the musicians: no one was trying to overshadow anyone else and you could see that everyone was really working together. Also, while there was no individual performance that truly stood out as show-stopping (although the bubbly Junainah Yusoff did have arguably the funniest moments), you didn't feel like there was a weak link either. Special mention should also go to the creative costume designer Molizah Mohd Moter. It wasn't Fatimah's elaborate costume that impressed me so much as the mischievous spirit that went into the simpler costumes for the ensemble. What seemed like a limited budget did not stop Molizah from creating colourful patchwork clothing for the ladies and makeshift warrior outfits for the men, that were both appropriate and tongue-in-cheek at the same time: it looked to me as if rattan mats had been cut up to form bracelets and shin guards, for example.

According to the programme, panggung ARTs' mission is apparently to create "original, issue-based theatre performances" and by that criterion, I'm afraid the silly spectacle that is Ma'ma Yong is far from a success: I was looking out for messages about art and life, reality and illusion or even about education and the teaching of Literature but found none. As simply an out-and-out comedy though, this fun and fizzy play certainly has a lot more going for it. It will be interesting to see which path panggung Arts now decides to pursue after this maiden production.


"The frenetic pace of the production made my head spin but it also meant I was seldom bored: there was always something to entertain me and if something wasn't entertaining, it would soon segue into something that was."

Credits

Director and Playwright: Muhd Najib Soiman

Translator: Mohd Zulfadli Mohd Rashid

Choreographer: Sudirman Mohamed

Lighting Designer: Helmi Fita

Set Designer: Junainah Yusoff

Costume Designer: Molizah Mohd Moter

Puppet Creator: Liu Yu-Jane

Technical Manager: Helmi Fita

Production Stage Manager: Elnie S Mashari

Production Coordinator: Molizah Mohd Moter

Production Assistant: Saffiah Sulaiman

Lighting Operator: Nureen Raidah Mohd Sarib

Surtitlist: Farahliza Farouk Ong

Make-Up Artist: Molizah Mohd Moter

Assistant Make-up Artist: Shamsul Saring

Stage Assistants: Saffiah Sulaiman, Shaun Teo

Musicians: GeRentak

Cast: Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit, Helmi Fita, Mohd Zulfadli Mohd Rashid, Junainah Yusoff, Norisman Mustafa, Shida Mahadi, Rei Poh, Serena Pang, Stanley Ng, Liu Yu-Jane, Muhd Hafiz Hamzah, Muhd Fadhli Ramli

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.