Theatre Review: Kampung Chekhov

There are two types of audience members attending Mary J. Ainslie’s small but uproarious Kampung Chekhov, a three-play Malaysian adaptation of Chekhov’s comic works: those who take their seats and immediately break into laughter at the antics of the actors, and those who occasionally glance at the rest of the laughing members. As a local, laughing hysterically is almost inevitable. When adapted to the contemporary Malaysian scene, with its inflated movements, vibrant speech, and rowdy spirit, there is nothing more comical than a localised adaptation of Chekhov’s one-act farces.

 

Ooi Mak Kaw, Mr Vasu, and Siti Farrah Aminah in ‘The Proposal’

‘The Proposal’, a fast-paced act with dialogical-based actions and situational humour, features Shamini Vasu, Neda Al-Asedi, and Nur Ily Hashim. The three familiar faces that starred as the boorish Mechanicals in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream return with another raucous intercultural performance; Shamini plays the Indian father, Ily the unmarried Malay daughter, and Neda the hypochondriac Chinese suitor. Racial boundaries are playfully blurred under a common Malaysian vernacular, and the Chinese suitor dons a perfect baju melayu while the Indian father wears a kopiah. ‘The Proposal’ unifies all three races into one comedic play, bending the stereotypical marriage plot into something more ludicrous despite its gender-biased nuances.

We then move to the ‘The Orang Utan’, adapted from Chekhov’s ‘The Bear’, which features Nellie Chan, Edmund Khoo, and Michelle Beth Chong. Nellie plays the red-lipped widower, Edmund the crude car dealer, and Beth the modern westernised niece. ‘The Bear’, though typically seen as a play of a woman taming a man (perhaps an antithesis to Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’), takes a slightly different turn in its Malaysian adaptation. Although the themes of misogyny and chauvinism remain throughout the act, Ruby Kwan reveals herself as the perfect counterpart of the ‘monkeying’ Alvin Tan, and we cannot quite bring ourselves to think of Alvin as the only orang-utan.

 

The brute Alvin Tan

On a different note, Chekhov’s ‘On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco’ takes its Malaysian spin as ‘On the Harmful Effects of Vaping’, delivered solely by Ahmad Danial who plays the special guest lecturer – a shambling yet mercurially active old man – warning us, ostensibly on the subject in the title, but in the process reveals the failures and disappointments in his life. He continually digresses from the intended topic, baring to the audience instead the relationship with his wife and seven daughters. This one-act monologue preserves the melancholic Chekhovian feel of the original, by which perhaps, for Chekhov, there is nothing more tragic than the ridiculousness of life.

 

Ahmad Danial as the lecturer in ‘On the Harmful Effects of Vaping’

Of course, you have to be a Malaysian to fully understand the loud and heavily contextualised references, especially when the young spinster Siti introduces the subject of ‘fishing’ in ‘The Proposal’, or when Alvin Tan speaks in a Chinese dialect in ‘The Orang Utan’, which may be inaccessible for other viewers. Likewise, Prof Abu Bakar’s failure is attributed to his MARA-related financial difficulties, resulting in a lack of educational qualification.

In fact, Mary J. Ainslie’s ‘Kampung Chekhov’ is anything but calm and sophisticated, appropriating Chekhov’s already vaudevillian farces to the vibrant local setting. From elaborated body language to exaggerated dialogues, ‘The Proposal’ and ‘The Orang Utan’ delights its audience with its contemporary allusions, lively speech, and cheap puns and punch lines. For instance, the name of the character Ooi Mak Kaw, portrayed by Neda Al-Asedi, plays on the local Malay expression ‘Oi mak kau’ (literally translated into ‘Oi your mother!’) often used as exclamatives to convey amazement or astonishment. Similarly, Ruby Kwan’s westernised niece is mockingly called a ‘banana’, and you can’t help but laugh yet feel the prickly overtones. The plays are divinely daft, marvellously preposterous, and terribly silly, but it’s also not for everyone. Those who have slightly more sophisticated comedy palettes may baulk at the rowdiness and relentlessness of it all.

 

Nellie Chan as the attractive widow

The solo deliverance of ‘On the Harmful Effects of Vaping’ by Ahmad Danial makes up for the preceding loudness. He inhabits Chekhov’s devastated character, scarcely moving from the podium so that the minute movements – the nervous glances towards the audience, or the surreptitious looking to the door to see if his wife might enter the room – amuses us with melancholic undertones. There are moments when his actions come off as slightly jarring, but Danial’s frequent awkward smile evokes sympathy to his overall pathetic character that we can’t help but continue to pity him. The subtlety of his body language, facial expressions, and vocal work balances the ridiculousness of his situation.

 

The smiling professor in between his digressions

Regardless, it is impossible not to admire the energy of the cast or the wildly caricatured comedy performances they deliver. Already veterans in the university theatrical scene, it is a pleasure to witness their take on satirical farces in ‘Kampung Chekhov’, and the localisation of Chekhov’s mini masterpieces was a comic success to both Malaysians and non-Malaysians. Ardent feminists, I suspect, may be offended, especially when Alvin Tan made the sweeping statement “You have the misfortune to be a woman.” Either way, I left the off-off-Broadway-like production an entertained and satisfied kitten.

 

 

Director

Mary J. Ainslie

 

Stage Management

Patrick O’Reilly

 

Actors

Neda Al-Asedi – Ooi Mak Kaw

Nur Ilyani ‘Ily’ Hashim – Siti Nur Farrah Aminah

Shamini Vasu – Mr Vasu-Velayuthan Pillai

 

Nellie Chan Li – Ruby Kwan Cheng May

Edmund Khoo – Edmund Khoo Yean Rhen

Elizabeth Kwan – Michelle Beth Chong

 

Ahmad Danial A Ghafar – Prof Abu Bakar bin Badrul

 

 

By: Nora Ramli

Writer, feminist, theatre enthusiast, but most importantly a purveyor of the importance of performing arts, from dance to spoken word and all in between.

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