Highlights of George Town Festival 2014

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Here’s our pick of George Town Festival 2014’s hits and miss.

Wrecking Crew Orchestra EL Squad.

Shanghai Starlight Acrobatic Troupe.

Bunditpatanasilpa Institute.

Racehorse Company.

Circus Circus

Circus Circus, piecing together performances from Japan, Finland, Thailand and China, was brilliant indeed. Being a mesmerising manipulation of light and shadows and of the human form, it had something for everyone.

The first act was by Wrecking Crew Orchestra from Japan. The entire auditorium had to be in total darkness for the performance, as everyone held their breath. Suddenly, flashes of blue and yellow were seen on stage. The dancers wore “tron-suits” and the total effect was entrancing. I do not believe in magic, but this short five-minute performance made it very easy to believe in it. In fact, their famed YouTube videos do no justice to their real-life performance.

The Racehorse Company from Finland gave an unconventional show and delighted the child in everyone. Their performance had them bouncing on huge yoga balls and jumping from seesaws, all taken to acrobatic extremes. Though there were a few hiccups when the performers failed to execute some moves properly, the audience was ready to forgive them.

Next up was Bunditpatanasilpa Institute from Thailand with their human shadowpuppet performance. Equipped with just a large white screen and spotlights, the group made clever use of light and shadows, kicking off with an intricate traditional dance then fusing into a more contemporary performance as dancers contorted their bodies to form silhouettes of Penang icons like Penang Bridge and even Kek Lok Si.

Last but not least was the Shanghai Starlight Acrobatic Troupe from China. The teenage performers awed everyone with their superb balancing acts, catlike movements and mind-boggling contortions. However, it was less novel compared to the other performances.

Circus Circus was a feast for the eyes. Playful, diverse, cultural and vibrant, this specially commissioned performance set the tone for George Town Festival 2014.



V&A Project

George Town Festival’s closing event was a street party of sorts, held at Lebuh Victoria and Lebuh Armenian. The V&A Project presented a stream of cultural performances, street food, music and handmade crafts, and among the highlights was Trolleys, a part ballet, part parkour performance. In the 20-minute show, five dancers spun, glided and “flew” to modern music, using trolleys as props. The extraordinary performance was the South-East Asian debut of Shaun Parker & Company.

Telling tales of Islam through dance, the Kuda Kepang performance brought to life the Wali Songgo (Nine Saints) of Java. Accompanied by traditional music played on Javanese and Malay instruments, the spellbinding performance was presented by Pusaka and performed by Kumpulan Kuda Kepang Parit Raja.

Viva Circus, the last show of the night, was a contemporary circus featuring mid-air heart-stopping acts and even a jester. Established by Malaysian-born and UK-trained performer Vivian Lea, the acrobatic acts were choreographed to the tune of recent club hits.

Other notable acts include the Penang Dhol Blasters, No Noise Percussion and A Capella. Event-goers were even allowed to conduct an orchestra during the “Conduct-me” sessions, and were treated to a graffiti demonstration.

 



2 Houses

Set during World War II and the Malayan Emergency, 2 Houses was a site-specific drama based on facts and interviews. It was a tale about two men sailing off to a new start and, along the way, becoming sworn brothers.

We were slowly introduced to the characters, from Heah the patriarch to his playboy son Ean to his daughter Ava, the belle of the ball. The play was split into two acts: the first took place on December 10, 1941 when news of the war broke out and people scrambled to get a ticket out of Penang, while the second act was set on December 16, 1948, just as communism was gaining momentum.

The 12-man period piece was performed by actors from both Malaysia and Singapore. The star of the evening had to be the 13th actor – the Soonstead Mansion. It was the perfect host and backdrop for this masterpiece. As the story of the Heah household unfolded, the audience was taken from room to room to fully experience the grandeur of the mansion.

2 Houses was close to heart as it was a story Penangites could relate to. It reminded us of the struggles, tears, blood and sweat taken to build the fortress that was Penang.

Specially commissioned for George Town Festival 2014’s closing weekend, 2 Houses was written and directed by Singaporean actor Lim Yu-Beng and produced by Tan Kheng Hua and Joe Sidek. The production was also part of Sin-Pen Colony, a festival within George Town Festival to celebrate the binding ties between Singapore and Penang.



The Kitchen

Roysten Abel was back after his highly successful The Manganiyar Seduction in George Town Festival 2012. This time around, the Indian playwright and theatre director brought us The Kitchen. Said to be an experiential piece, the multi-sensory theatre represents the journey of life and is a cross between contemporary and folk performance inspired by the teachings of the mystical philosopher, Rumi.

A husband-and-wife pair who cooks for a temple sat centre stage with two stirring vats filled with payasam – an Indian rice pudding typically served as dessert – before them. Behind them, 12 mizhavu drummers sat on a three-tiered structure that resembled an earthen pot, if not the mizhavu itself.

The performance took audiences through the life of the couple, and although the 75-minute show was devoid of dialogue, the rhythm of the mizhavu drummers and the movements of the pair evoked an assortment of emotions that ranged from love, anger and sadness to finally enlightenment.

The one-of-a kind piece may have left some audiences unable to fully comprehend the storyline. Some parts would have appeared monotonous for first-time theatre-goers. Nevertheless, they seem to have enjoyed the rhythm and smell of the simmering payasam. To end the show, the dessert was served to audiences at the foyer of Dewan Sri Pinang, thus completing the journey of the senses.



Oh! My Penang

Chai Diam Ma cafe on Lebuh Queen was transformed into a simple performance space for the album launch of Oh! My Penang, the brainchild of Bloody Records, an independent label aimed at bringing out local music productions. The album was an attempt to present Penang’s heritage to global audiences via music and focused on nine bands and musicians.

To commemorate the launch, musical performances were held at the cafe. Each of the nine songs from the album was accompanied by a display of visual arts from local Penang artists. Among the songs performed were “Lagu Pasar”, based on the Lebuh Carnarvon market, and “Kisah Pulau Pinang”. Traditional instruments such as gamelan, mridangam and erhu made prominent appearances throughout the night.

Some of the songs in the album were very nostalgic in nature. Ariff Ismail for instance sang about Jalan Masjid Negeri where his high school, Penang Free School, is located, while Koay Chee Lin sang of an old house with red roof tiles, presumably the house she grew up in on Jalan Magazine. Each song carried a unique signature. Call it the underground sounds of Penang if you like.



No Cover Up

Staged at the inconspicuous Sinkeh, a guesthouse and space for the arts in the heart of George Town, No Cover Up manages to capture attention right from the start. The documentary-drama theatre piece was based on its namesake book about the true story of the Batang Kali massacre during the Malayan Emergency. The massacre claimed 24 innocent lives on December 12, 1948.

The 70-minute piece opened with a short shadow play that captured the simplicity of village folks during the late 1940s. Performed in Mandarin with English subtitles, it combined shadow play with puppetry and monologue. It was also the second time the play was staged, the first being in Singapore.

The three-man show followed the events of the massacre from the perspective of the witnesses and the Action Committee. Incidentally, the son of the man who initiated the committee and the current solicitor for the committee, Quek Ngee Meng, was among the audience.

Director Anthony Lee chose to portray the witnesses using puppets, with voiceovers done by actress and puppeteer Yiky Chew. This not only added to the dynamics of the play but also allowed audience imaginations to run free. Chew’s voiceover as witness Tham Yong was both engaging and heartfelt, leaving some in the audience teary-eyed. In addition, the studio space at Sinkeh allowed for an intimate viewing of the play, rekindling interest in the Batang Kali massacre, of which the court case is still ongoing.



The Living City

Interactive exhibition “The Living City” explored city-making using a playful hands-on approach, with LEGOs as building mediums. The purpose of the exhibition was to understand that cities are living organisms.

Housed in the MPPP Town Hall, exhibition-goers, or “players” in this case, had the opportunity to build a city from scratch. The exhibition started as an empty green lot and players contributed to the fictional living city. Among the structures built were Penang Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, a “From Holland with Love” sign and a stadium. Each day of the exhibition saw new structures being built and the destruction of several others. A total of 50,000 LEGOs were used throughout the exhibition, with a good blend of participation from locals and tourists alike.

As part of the exhibition, a two-day master class was conducted by Danish-Icelandic architecture studio KRADS. KRADS and 15 selected participants of architectural and urban planning backgrounds took a look at car parks and how the spaces could be better used. Once again, LEGO bricks were used as thinking tools. The outcomes were then put on display during the exhibition.

Organised by #BetterCities, the exhibition was an initiative to focus on creative, collaborative and community-centred approaches to improve urban living and environments in South-East Asian cities. The master class was sponsored by The Embassy of Finland in KL.



Lungs

A woman is caught off guard as her partner suggests that they try for a baby. She goes on a rant and finds difficulty in breathing at the mere thought of bringing a child into the world. Along the way, the couple contemplates the pros and cons of having a baby and how their lives are going to change. Would they be good parents? How would the child’s carbon footprint affect the planet?

Lungs is a play written by Duncan MacMillan and directed by Alexis Wong. It follows a couple as they take the next step in their relationship. The lesser-known studio space at Gallery 4, Whiteaways Arcade was the perfect set for the intimate play. With a bare stage devoid of any props or backdrop, the audience had no choice but to eavesdrop on the private and brutally honest conversation – it was a conversation anyone of us could have had.

Actors Jeremy Ooi and Erin Marie played the leads. It was Marie’s first lead role, and it was also the first time both actors appeared in a play without any props.


 

The Thai Classical Small Puppet Theatre

First of all, let’s talk about the puppets. Based on traditional models from the early 20th century, they were intricately designed and distinctively Thai, requiring up to three people at a time to manipulate. Unlike many other puppet shows, the performers were not hiding behind the screen – they were as much a part of the act as the “stars” of the show themselves. The audience got to see – and marvel – at how each team of puppeteers was in sync with one another, manipulating limbs and heads as puppet interacted with puppet, making it look enchantingly easy. The results were puppets far more expressive than many of your least favourite wooden Hollywood actors.

With such a combination of technique, discipline and history, the show could easily have been a staid affair. And it did start off that way, with a retelling of old Thai legends. But the second act turned the show on its ear, depicting a puppeteer trying to control a life-sized, often oblivious “puppet”. It was a fun, funny performance by the actors that lightened the mood and signalled that in spite of the weight of cultural history, the theatre didn’t plan on taking itself too seriously.

The clear highlight of the night was Hanuman Seizing Suphannamatcha, which began as a retelling of another Thai fable but which rapidly devolved into farce as a frustrated Hanuman fires one of his controllers and gets a member of the audience to take over, to entirely predictable results. Hanuman was the star of the night, hamming it up to the crowd and wading into the seats to take selfies with the audience, and it was surprisingly easy to forget that there were three guys carrying him around, controlling his every moment. And the audience ate everything up.

The grand finale featured Puppet Hanuman versus Puppet Michael Jackson in a dance-off. Naturally.


 

Play

The first thing you notice about Play is the musicians seated on large wooden tiles on the stage of Dewan Sri Pinang. As the show progressed, the tiles and musicians were moved around to the demands of the performance. At a glance, it felt like little more than a neat, visually interesting gimmick, but during the course of the show, it fitted into the themes of Play with surprising elegance.

Helmed by choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (who worked on Sutra at last year’s festival) and Kuchipudi dancer Shantala Shivalingappa, Play was really several different types of performances rolled into a single, ambitious chimera of song and dance, all the while trying to tell a single story. As the music played, a man and woman engaged in a game of chess with growing intensity, the man consistently putting the woman on the back foot with quick, aggressive moves, piece after piece leaving the board until the woman turned the tables on him with a definitive checkmate.

Chess turned to dance, the dance mirroring the earlier game as man and woman were locked in aggressive yet graceful moves, one trying to gain dominance over the other. Dance turned to masquerade, with man and woman engaged in a ghoulish puppet war. Shivalingappa then delivered a monologue on the difference between pleasure and happiness, all of which built up to the climax of the show where the five performers shared a moment on the piano, finally achieving that long sought-after harmony.

Play had high ambitions and the talent to match it – musicians and dancers worked in harmony, showing a delicate blend of grace, rhythm, contrast and inventiveness. The only misstep was when they performed a cover of “I Will Show You the World”, first heard on Disney’s Aladdin; the ballad dripped with saccharine that just didn’t mesh well with everything else that had gone on before or after it. Because of that one element, Play didn’t quite work as well as it could have, but what did work was breathtaking.


 

Rising

It is said that art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. It certainly seems to be the case for Aakash Odedra’s art. Throughout Rising, the choreography was beautiful but unnerving. One aspect that really stood out was its surreal, dream-like quality.

Visually, Rising was a feast. Odedra seamlessly married contemporary dance with classical Indian styles. Still, as much as I wanted to love this masterpiece, I found that I could not connect with it emotionally, only visually. Instead of following the storyline, I found myself trying to decipher what each movement meant because their meanings were neither intuitive nor symbolic enough. For example, in Shadow of Man, Odedra attempted to discover if there was an animal residing deep within the recesses of the human soul. Technically, it was perfect; his performance was so convincing that it seemed as if he was morphing into a werewolf right on stage. However, instead of a sense of inclusiveness, the viewers appeared to feel like they were just passers-by.

A few dances that really stood out were Constellation and CUT. The wonderful play with lighting was mesmerising, and apart from the mild discomfort when the volume of the music grew unnecessarily high, the sound system was very well managed. The music accompaniment was beautifully chosen and complemented the choreography perfectly.


 

Laughter of 600 Years

Kyogen, a form of comical play developed in Japan during the 14th century, is performed with laughter in mind. The stage is always bare, the only prop being the large painting of a pine tree commonly believed in Japan to have divine properties. With satirical and slapstick elements, Laughter of 600 Years Mansai Nomura Kyogen Performance did not fail to tickle audiences’ funny bones.

The show comprised of two short plays and a 20-minute fascinating explanation about the art of Kyogen. The first play told of a possessed man and his older brother who asked a mountain priest to heal him, but it was the second play that really made an impression – it was a comical story of two servants who were constantly stealing their master’s sake. And even when bound, they still managed to conceive ingenious ways to drink it. Mansai Nomura was fantastic portraying the subtleties of human nature with absolute ease.

Subtitles for non-Japanese speakers were available no doubt, but the actions and expressions of the actors were so precise and unambiguous that there could be no mistaking their intentions. No microphones were used throughout the performance; the actors did an excellent job of voice projection. Without a single boring minute, this remarkable performance did everything spot on.


 

Text, Body, Space

The George Town Festival website called it a contemporary mixed media physical theatre performance based on the collaboration between artistes from Shanghai and local artistic disciplines such as drama and visual arts. Indeed, there was dance and drama, and even a bit of comedy. Despite all that, it lacked a crucial element – subtitles.

Dialogues and soliloquies were mainly in Mandarin, to the chagrin of audiences who did not speak the dialect. There was a smattering of Hokkien during the comedic exchange between two lovebirds who could barely understand each other due to their different dialects, but one ought to keep in mind that not everyone understands Hokkien in Penang, nor Mandarin. Although the performance ought to speak for itself, for Text, Body, Space, subtitles were probably a necessity – a Western couple seated right at the front smiled and shrugged at each other when one of the performers launched into what must have been a thought-provoking soliloquy.

They weren’t the only ones lost. From what I could glean, the show was basically a history lesson about the Chinese diaspora. And although there was a part with English text explaining the hardships of the Chinese in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era (17th century to end of the 19th century) which was accompanied by a graceful dance routine, unfortunately, it felt out of place, and I could only watch in confusion. It might have been a performance I would have enjoyed better had there been subtitles – or perhaps a forewarning of their absence so that I could bring along an interpreter.


 

Nine Deaths One Life

It was first and foremost an avant-garde performance; it was also a piece that explored the topic of death. And at the semi-burnt and abandoned premises of 139 Beach Street, Nine Deaths One Life was atmospheric as hell (pun intended).

One definitely needed an open mind to enjoy the show – much was left to the interpretation of the audience, although things were smoothed out at a sharing session after the performance. And in the dark, candle-lit spaces of the derelict building, performance artist Soonufat Supramaniam leapt around, his manic yet fluid movements keeping the audience enthralled. He defied taboo by holding a feat like this during the Chinese Ghost Month and even going to the point of putting up his death portrait, but it was all for the sake of the show. Supramaniam and fellow performer Kenneth Tan gave their utmost in this soul-searching performance, and one went away with a feeling one cannot put a finger on – much like death.


 

Hai Ki Xin Lor

This has to be one of the best performances of George Town Festival 2014, and here’s why.

It’s a story about love, sacrifice and confronting the skeletons in your closet. This theme might sound common enough, but in Hai Ki Xin Lor, it was the execution that nailed it. Performed entirely in Penang Hokkien – and this meant there was always a smattering of English and Malay words – the play was highly relatable to those who understood the patois (subtitles in English and Chinese on two screens were availed to non-Hokkien speakers). The characters could have come from any local family; circumstances might differ, but there’s usually the black sheep, the adventurer and the one who stays behind to take care of the hearth.

Sunny, played by Frederick Lee, has come home for Chinese New Year, but unbeknownst to his family, he is also making a film about their past. This of course leads to tension, as Sunny is struggling with production finances as well as the conflict that arises when his sister Hoon finds out what he is doing, but he needs to finish this – he needs closure to a traumatic event that happened during his childhood. In the process, we peek into his relationship with his mother, played by Neo Swee Lin, his mentally ill brother Ah Boy and his two aunts, as well as their ties to each other.

The acting was without fault, and was in fact almost clinical in execution. Despite not hailing from Penang, actors Lee and Neo pulled off the Penang accent perfectly. That detail aside, the performance of the entire cast was heartfelt and sincere and had the audience tearing up at times, but Lee has to receive much credit for his earnest portrayal of Sunny.

Hai Ki Xin Lor is based on director Saw Teong Hin’s life – he wrote the play, and for a story so intimate, it only made sense for him to direct it. Praise ought to be heaped on Saw’s production company, Real Films, and Noise Performance House for the ingenious set which not only allowed for both past and present scenes to take place simultaneously, but also for indoor and outdoor scenes to be carried out without props being moved around. It could not have taken place anywhere else but at Khoo Kongsi – a bigger venue would have interrupted the warmth of the set. At only an hour long, Hai Ki Xin Lor delved into the meat of the story, wasting no time with lengthy introductions. It was concise, compact and had absolutely no qualms about getting the audience to smile and cry at the same time. Five stars out of five – an apt close to George Town Festival.




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