Monday, January 24, 2005

(T) August 10, 2003 - Atomic Jaya

IT is an uphill task. What else can I say about Atomic Jaya when all the complimentary adjectives have already been used in previews that raved about this play’s quality? Having read all that praise, I went in with high expectations. Thankfully, unlike with some over-hyped movies these days, I was not disappointed.

Political satire provides good laugh therapy for the urban soul, with cruise missiles designed to lock in and hit the rear end of some unfortunate personality. In some plays, the personalities are known and they have to take the brunt of the shots, good-humouredly or otherwise. But in Huzir Sulaiman’s Atomic Jaya, the playwright plays it smart and safe by using archetypes instead (with the exception of one American character) – which is perfectly okay, since nobody here would get hurt. Only one who, “takes the chilli would feel the heat”, so goes a Malay proverb.

When the Romans gave birth to politicians a long time ago, politics began with dialogues. Perhaps it was for this reason that director Casey Lim felt it more appropriate to introduce two persons into the play instead of keeping to one as the original production with Jo Kukathas did in 1998. It was to Huzir’s delight as well to see his work realised in a different interpretation and direction.

Opened to a packed house on Wednesday night, Huzir had the pleasure of the talented Claire Wong who joined him on stage to complement him with seven roles while he took eight.

The set was simple and clean. The centre of the stage floor was lit revealing the shape of a rectangular box. A big screen hung against a plain white backdrop that was vertically folded at consistent intervals emulating the office blinds of corporate Malaysia. According to Lim, the director in him overcame the artiste in him so he resisted the temptation to steal the limelight and brought out the text of the play instead, hence the minimalist style.

The story began and continued to flow with the storytelling of Dr Mary Yuen (Wong), a highly intelligent but frustrated scientist/researcher stuck in a dead-end job that did not do justice to her accomplishments. When opportunity knocks, she eagerly accepts the offer to build a bomb for Malaysia at the dodgy Atomic Jaya Sdn Bhd. But conscience gets the better of her and she decides to sabotage the bomb so that it won’t explode. In between, numerous characters are introduced to bring her tale to life – the key character being Dr Zulkifli, a general with a Napoleonic fixation, acted well by Huzir himself.

Dr Saiful and Dr Ramachandran, Dr Yeun’s new colleagues, played by Claire and Huzir respectively, are two very different characters. Standing side by side, the contrast was apparent. Dr Saiful is a vertically challenged slouch and he does everything at an agonisingly slow pace, including speaking. On the other hand, Dr Ramachandran is tall and poised, impatient and fidgety, and does everything with haste.

I must say Wong did a remarkable job with Dr Saiful for the crowd loved the cringed-face, jaw-jutted character.

Wong and Huzir were like Yin and Yang on stage: both were very different yet a crucial complement to each other. The audience was, of course, happy beneficiaries of the dynamic force.

The roles of the minister and foreign newsreaders displayed the comic tragedy of miscommunication (“uranium” became “Iranian”, for example) between the East and the West. It was also sarcasm at full force when the minister portrayed stupidity after stupidity. Or perhaps it was just a ploy to distract attention from the real issues?

To me, these parts of the play were significant as they told us that we need a level of global consciousness in everything we do simply because local events have global consequences. The acceptance and mutual recognition of social and cultural differences are still largely obstructed by the prevailing educational systems and the way in which the mass media operates.

Nothing was spared, to be fair. Issues such as urban planning, education, tourism, and parties such as the media, locals and foreigners, and so on, were engulfed by Huzir’s 360° atomic sphere.

Throughout the play, Wong and Huzir wore the same stiff, brown, uniform-like outfit. Was this to say that Malaysians are conformists and are mass-produced to look and think alike?

On a less positive note, I felt that the role of Noraini, the tea lady at Atomic Jaya Sdn Bhd, was quite redundant. The character did not add intellectual content nor witty humour and the play could very well have proceeded without her.

On the rare occasion when the roles seemed to be draining the actor and actress, the moving art in the background came in swiftly to bring the play back in tempo.

The high point of the digital art’s enforcement of subtle humour came as the Patriotic Singer renders a song. It starts innocently enough with scenery of a kampung by the beach complete with watercolour-effect sky and coconut trees.

The audience cracked up when a totally spastic-looking bomb (by today’s standards) came on screen. To add insult to injury, lyrics appeared (on the screen) as the song was ending. Needless to say, everyone was rolling in their seats with tears of laughter. Some of the more sporting members of the audience actually sang along!

Speaking of effects, I particularly like the part when Dr Yuen quoted one of her physics heroes’ awe in witnessing an atomic explosion. In the deafening silence, both Huzir and Wong blended, ashen-like, into the multimedia visual of an explosion mushrooming upwards and then settling down to a fade.

Other parts of the digital video art took on a supportive role in this production. Its task was to enhance, complement, explore and add meaning to the characters and scenes. For example, the hibiscus featured on the screen came in different colours and textures – the lab scenes were backed by a white hibiscus, Dr Zulkifli was represented by an army green one, and, of course, Dr Yuen, by red.

In today's society where people have adopted the interactive and electronic culture, it is quite apt to have both elements of multimedia and acting at play.

And judging from the audience's warm reception towards the play, the Singapore-based Checkpoint Theatre that produced Atomic Jaya can definitely look forward to putting up more quality productions in the future.

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