The Cruelty and Absurdity of ‘Losertown’

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Losertown

7 – 17 December 2017
Directed by Tung Jit Yang
Studio 9, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre

 

REVIEW BY ANDY DARREL GOMES

There is clutter everywhere. The dark foyer and the performance space are decorated with dim fairy lights. There are scribbled papers on the walls, a rack full of clothes and a mattress. A live band blasts music in the background while the audience squeeze their way to the seats. The experience is claustrophobic but serves as an invitation into the protagonist’s tumultuous state of mind.

Losertown, an experimental one-woman musical theatre, follows actress, musician and stand-up comedian Hannan Azlan as she takes on Joseph Campbell’s A Hero’s Journey. Her path is graced with helpers: band mates Coebar Abel, Ian Francis Khoo, Endee Ahmad and Khairil Imran. Together, they aim for stardom.

Overall, the play succeeds in bringing across strong emotions but lacks focus in form and content. The highlight of the experience is director Tung Jit Yang’s sharp sensitivity to engineering moments of emotion. His masterly crafted visuals paired with Yusman Mokhtar’s scenography, loud music, impactful sounds and throbbing light hints of what Antonin Artaud aspires to achieve with his Theatre of Cruelty.

Artaud’s idea of an ideal theatre is when the actors trap the audience and perform around them. He seeks to assault the senses of spectators so that the performance will be perceived by both the mind and the senses. In Losertown, the aesthetics are gritty and raw, and the gestures are sometimes shocking, accompanied by grunts and loud screams.

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In the beginning, the protagonist is seen dragging a heavy mattress and placing it in front of the audience. The act parallels Tracey Emin’s exhibited work “My Bed” which is a bed the English artist had lain in while severely depressed and contemplating suicide. Like Emin, Hannan’s mattress sets the battleground in which fights are fought against herself: she throws her body down, bounces back up, zaps her microphone like a matchstick and wallows in tears while waiting for a life-changing letter.

Hannan drives the performance with her music composition, strong vocals and energized portrayal. The musicians added texture by taking turns to share their stories in response to the question, “Have you ever felt like a coward?” A notable moment is when drummer Ian Francis Khoo delivers his monologue on witnessing abuse as a child. His frailty and vulnerability is aching.

Repetition is a strong trait in the work. Midway, the director starts making a regular appearance as a mailman. He doesn’t speak, only showers the protagonist with countless letters. Hannan repeatedly grabs them and hides them under her mattress. Songs and lines, too, are recycled throughout. Here, repetition adheres to conventions from Theatre of the Absurd and Albert Camus’ idea in “The Myth of Sisyphus”: that life is monotonous and mundane.

The story progresses with the character finally receiving her long-awaited letter and achieving success. “This is definitely not Losertown!” she exclaims. A paradigm shift happens and the space externalizes her inner glow with bright lights and the performers sporting flashy outfits.

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Unfortunately, the moment is short lived. She hits rock bottom and the darkness invades again. Endee Ahmad’s haunting hum fills the atmosphere and a mannequin covered in white is escorted out, resembling a funeral procession, symbolizing the death of Hannan’s internal winner.

The ending was bleak and pessimistic. Hannan was left alone, and in the dark. She strums a ukulele and sings about being a loser deceived into thinking she is a winner. She gradually turns off all the lights, snuffing out all rays of hope before telling the audience to “Get the fuck out”. Then she exits and slams the door behind her.

The play’s resolution abides by the absurdist’s existential philosophy that all human life is meaningless. It suggests that the pursuit of success and affirmation of self-worth is pointless, because existence is without purpose.

Losertown would have been more engaging if the design and narrative had been more focused. It appeared at times like an assembly of ideas that might work standing alone but which did not exist in harmony. For instance, it was unclear at times if the protagonist was in her own world or existing in the same space as the spectators. Some parts required crowd participation, and this added to the confusion of the audience’s role and the scene setting.

The narrative was lost at times, swallowed by the show’s overpowering form. As a result, the story came across as fragments or juxtapositions of events that did not link. It was like a concert with theatrics, intervals of monologue and spoken word: a disorientation from its original source, The Hero’s Journey.

As a whole, Losertown daringly fuses elements from Theatre of Cruelty and Absurdism with musical theatre. Its impact is lasting, leaving the audience with senses awakened and plenty to reflect upon. The director’s effort to experiment did not go unnoticed and sets a precedent to further explore new vocabularies in theatre-making.

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Andy Darrel Gomes writes, directs and acts in performing arts and films. He works closely with youths through Project Spect-Actor, a Theatre of the Oppressed movement in Malaysia, and lectures on theatre at Taylors College.

All photos courtesy of The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat.


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