>pesta peti putih by teater ekamatra

>reviewed by musa fazal

>date: 13, 15 & 18 aug 2003
>time: 8pm
>venue: the substation, the guinness theatre
>rating: ***

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Pesta Peti Putih, or the White Box Festival, held at the Substation's Black Box no less, is the fifth and final instalment of a commitment by Teater Ekamatra to developing Malay theatre amongst youths - which is a noble cause, but not necessarily a recipe for good theatre. Hence I accepted Ekamatra's invitation to review this festival with some hesitation, half-expecting to be subjected to several nights of morality plays that would be as didactic as the karangan (Malay essays) I used to write in school. I took some consolation from the fact that the participants were made to go through a series of workshops in everything from voice to lighting, and received guidance from such well-known Ekamatra veterans as Noor Effendy Ibrahim and Alin Mosbit. But I told Ekamatra I would come for the opening night and then see if I wanted to come for more. Each night, I was impressed. Each night I watched, fascinated, the way the students made use of the same group of white boxes and flats to create a variety of interesting sets. Now don't get me wrong: not all of these performances were a joy to watch. But amongst the duds, there were some gems, and each night I left feeling like I had to come back for more.

These are the six plays.

>>'Not all of these performances were a joy to watch. But amongst the duds, there were some gems, and each night I left feeling like I had to come back for more'

> 'Pentas Perjalanan' ('The Journey's Stage') by Jurong Institute had some good moments. The writing was fairly strong, with some clever wordplay, though it was pretentiously poetic at times. I remember a line spoken by one of the minstrels - "Setiap hari Melayuku melayu" ("Each day my Malay-ness wanes"). The acting too was strong, with some of the actors deserving of a Suria award. Nur Suhaili Bte Safari, who turns in a gut-wrenching performance as Tanggang's mother when the play digresses for a moment to explore the connection with that well-known legend of an ungrateful son who is turned to stone. The use of traditional Malay musical instruments added an interesting touch. What let this play down for me was the sandiwara quality of the story. There were some twists and turns in the plot, but there was nothing earth-shatteringly new being discussed here. 'Pentas Perjalanan' was a stroll through Pasir Ris park: mildly interesting, but unspectacular in the end.

> 'One Plus One' by Temasek Polytechnic was an outstanding play, with stellar performances from an ensemble cast. This play had me at hello. It started interestingly with an actor wrapping his fellow actors in a sheet of plastic, from which they then emerged cocoon-like. Nothing was wasted. The discarded sheaths of plastic were rolled up and used as soccer balls for the next scene, and white flats were used to transform the stage into a soccer pitch with goalposts and billboards proclaiming Buat Ajelah (Just Do It). The play went through the lives of two friends, their various back-stabbings and betrayals, but made use of interesting metaphors and images (mostly to do with soccer) to add volumes to the simple storyline. Best of all, these actors looked like they were having fun, and that injected the play with an energy that made the performance completely engrossing.

> 'Aku Dan Bayang-Bayang' ('Me And My Shadow') by National Junior College had something to do with a really special motorcycle (I think), but the entire play sputtered like an old scooter. Never mind that the story did not make sense. The NJC team did not appear to have even understood some of the basics of theatre, for example, that you never play the music so loud that the audience can't hear what the actors are saying. At one point Hanif, the central character, cries out in despair "Kenapa semua tak faham ni?" ("Why doesn't anybody understand?"). So many reasons Hanif, so many reasons. As Hanif descended into a deepening madness, the performance too increasingly fell apart (parts of the set fell over, the lighting seemed to get dimmer and dimmer, and by the end the actors were practically whispering) till at last the whole mess finally ran out of gas.

> Empat' ('Four') by Pioneer Junior College was a very strong dramatic performance, with enlightened directing. In the hands of this group, the use of the standard issue white boxes and flats looked so natural one would think the sets had been custom made. Simple things were used to evoke atmosphere to great effect - the gesture of a woman tearing a dress, for example, or the reading of Quranic verses and the laying of a batik sarong on one of the actors, to set the stage for a funeral. The writing for this play was sharp and the best lines were in the repartee between your quintessential busybody neighbours Petom and Peah (which are such lovely names that just explode off the tongue). The acting was competent all round, but Zalikha Bte Mis'Ari did an extraordinary job of conveying the intensity of the character Tijah, a mother driven to suicide by the actions of her children.

> Geylang Mencucuk' ('Geylang Pokes') by the National Institute of Education was one of those plays that almost said something but didn't quite. The story revolved around a mother and daughter who drift apart because of the influence of their respective friends who hold opposing views of the world - one is a traditionalist, the other an ultra modern dancing queen. Set this against the backdrop of Geylang and you have the potential for an interesting exploration into the psyche of that latest government catch-phrase Melayu Baru (the New Malay). But 'Geylang Mencucuk' doesn't poke deep enough and the characters and values they espouse are too stereotypical to leave a deep impression. The best part of this play was the end, where the actors pulled apart the set against the backdrop of the wistful melody 'Geyland si paku Geylang'. Geylang deconstructed? Almost, but not quite.

> 'Mereka' ('Them') by Serisatusama was a breathtaking ensemble performance by the products of Ekamatra's playwriting mentorship programme. This play whizzed through vignette clippings of everything from cooking shows to wrestling matches. Like all good physical theatre it was a performance that was as much about form as content, so we find in the opening scene a cacophony of voices that smoothens out eventually into a chorus, just as the tapestry of MTV-style scenes eventually worked its way toward meaning. One of the characters, a woman who feels insecure about people watching her on a crowded train, is always seen speaking from an artificial height through the use of boxes, or bodies bent over, as if to emphasise her insistence on being heads up above the rest. In another hilarious scene between a Sumo wrestler and a silat warrior, the actors play up the dramatic ritual preparations before the fight then launch into a battle that rapidly degenerates into a farcical chasing game, with the actors finally landing on the floor, wheeled off by an ambulance. 'Mereka' was a performance determined to take an irreverent dig at all the oppositional dichotomies we create - parents vs. children, society vs. ourselves. Serisatusama shows us that it is the rituals of the fight that we care about, the flowery preamble to a debate where the debate itself is as pointless as Tupperware. Best of all, there is nothing didactic about this play - indeed you're encouraged to question the links between "who eats who", to see the many different pictures in the painting, to join the dots. This play was a beautiful, varied collage of melodies, a Pink Floyd song. Rapturous applause.