Produced by penangpac
Directed by Wong Lay Chin, Christopher Preslar, Alvie Cheng & John S. de Silva
17 – 19 February 2017
Review by DHIYANAH HASSAN
As a feature for Valentine’s Day, penangpac worked with four directors to produce four short plays: Pak Tor? (Wong Lay Chin), The View (Christopher Preslar), The Swing (Alvie Cheng) and My Aunt Pamela (Jason S. de Silva).
Pak Tor? opens the show with a video game soundtrack. Two chairs with a white table in between signify a cafe or eatery. Throughout all four plays, the red lighting was utilized masterfully, showering sets in crimson tension or, in this case, a rosey softness.
Sotorng Lim’s character leans back on a chair, book in hand, with Keangiap Tan standing nearby. His character is dressed in a shirt and sweater vest, body language brimming with eagerness. A bell rings and he greets her – or attempts to.
The term pak tor translates as ‘to go dating.’ Penang Hokkien has recently inspired an aura of nostalgia as local creatives resist its decline by including it in their works. As a non-speaker, I found the subtitles projected above the stage clear and easy to follow.
The bell rings and the story resets. He greets her again, as if for the first time. The sound of the bell grants the story a re-do. Like a game where you have to pass through levels to fulfill a task, they eventually agree to watch a movie together. Sotorng’s performative gymnastics was a delight to watch, with her character flipping from defensive to brazen to shy in each scenario.
The constant resets, however, lost their novelty pretty quickly as the dialogue swung from light-hearted to problematic jokes (ie. making light of the Rohingya refugee crisis) for laughs. Perhaps the foundation of local comedy has a lot to do with diverting the realities of difficult truths into making light of the matter. What this risks, though, is the loss of significance in matter and moment.
A couch set-up with scattered food wrappers on the floor readies the stage for The View, the only non-comedic play of the night. A figure (Tan Seoh Chen) sits in the dark; the slight lighting on her face and background noise tells us that she’s watching TV as she faces us, gaze blank. Her expression and the darkness invokes a heavy atmosphere that manifests physically as Ivan Gabriel’s character, an apparition of the husband who returns only in the deep fog of his wife’s grief-stricken mind.
Exploring the private space of a woman struggling to reconcile with the memory of a husband who betrayed her, the play is visually emotive but dialogically trite. Their interaction reveals the wife to be on medication, perhaps a long-time sufferer of mental illness.
As a topic that receives severe stigma in Malaysia’s social landscape, the implementation of such an issue without necessary nuance can mar the effort of shining light on it. The reason behind the wife’s portrayal wasn’t clear but there is enough space for ambiguity within the play and within the silences of the dance that concludes it for the audience to fill in the blanks.
The set is tacky on purpose for The Swing, a Mandarin play that utilizes the unexpected splendidly. We’re convinced we’re watching a scene of two lovers in 2050 post-war Malaysia exchanging a moment before Jess Lee Jia Shyun’s character has to leave. The lights fade out after, and we see a capped stranger standing to the left, a quizzical expression on his face. It’s quickly revealed via the characters’ interactions that the scene we just watched was part of a film shoot.
The director criticizes the actors for their lack of “feeling.” The actors’ retort is that this is the acting he gets for their RM300 salary. A cleverly entertaining criticism ensues on the realities of working in local creative industries: “Even burning ourselves take money.”
They then perform a second take, an over-dramatized version of the scene they just played. The play ends with an interruption from the actors of Pak Tor, but not before we find out the director had actually enjoyed the exaggerated acting, which raises the question: who gets to decide the standards of creative work?
My Aunt Pamela closes the show with robust energy. Aunty Pam is Daniel S. de Silva in drag, a middle-class Eurasian woman going through divorce, set on a stage made to look like a living room in the process of change by a box marked ‘Throw/Donate’. Her brother sends in Rita (Muha Mesri), her niece, to check up on her.
The characters’ interactions are layered with humor and a softness that makes them lovable – Aunty Pam’s snide comments, Rita’s teenage awkwardness, their bonding over Barbra Streisand. Through their interactions, Aunty Pam finds reason for optimism, softening up to Rita and letting loose towards the end.
As a series, Fourplay aims to place romance in the midst of the unexpected. With its comedy, it remains largely within comfort zones – satirical comments on politics and race, tactless nudges to the inappropriate, and always with the man dressed in drag. Despite this, there were moments in each where playfulness bloomed in different forms – joy, mischief, and tenderness.
Photos by Sherwynd Rylan Kessler