The idea: Get a whole group of college-aged theater actors and enthusiasts together. Put on shows that you would like to perform and what people want to see. Yang penting sekali, semangat kena tinggi.

Khairunazwan Rodzy, an Aswara graduate in Direction, did just that back in 2006. Over the years, the group dubbed “Revolution Stage” has grown into a rather sizeable and energetic bunch. Made up of students, graduates and their peers from various universities around Malaysia, they have staged about 10 shows since their inception.

Ramleefestasi_banner_credit

The cast, crew and friends involved in Ramleefestasi (l-r): back row: Iwan, Wani, Fiza Mokhtar, Niessa Aziz, Linda Isa, Ahmad Dhani, Shahrezza, Ammar Izwan, Rahmat, Pown, and Shufitri. 
Middle row: Omar Yunus, Nik CHIP Afiq, Cristina Suzanne, Tisha, Beto Kusyairi, Khairunazwan Rodzy, Ayop Azril, Zul, Arshad Adam, and Abdul Wafi.
Front row: Jubang Samat, Sharifuddin Doul, Ejoy Jasni, Kirin Muhamad, Mustaqim Muhamad, Ghadafi Meliki, and Awan Kiko (lying on the floor). All pics courtesy of Revolution Stage

Ramleefestasi and Tepuk Amai-Amai were originally shown as part of Bangkit, a project started by Revolution Stage in October last year to get more people, especially teens, to the theater. It featured five plays — the others being Ratna Kadhal, Le Jeu La Julia and SeNaPas. According to Khairunazwan, these two were chosen to be restaged first for very different reasons. Ramleefestasi dipentaskan atas permintaan ramai berikutan ramai penonton yang tidak berpeluang menontonnya pada tahun lepas. Tepuk Amai-Amai pula dipentaskan atas keinginan mahu berkongsi naskhah ini kepada lebih ramai [pentonton].”

Ramleefestasi

A stumbling romp through the Lagenda’s work

The shows were staged a week apart, Ramleefestasi being first. The premise: 12 scenes culled from different P Ramlee movies and reinterpreted by 4 directors (Arshad Adam, Yunus Omar, Wafi Saidin and Nik Afiq). What connected them was a cutesy love story involving Sulaiman (Beto Kusyairy) and Iman (Cristina Suzanne Stockstill), that were on their proverbial way to the pelamin. Every time a sketsa ended, Sulaiman and Iman’s tale would continue.

“With P Ramlee having played everything from an army officer to an amateur actor to a blind musician, not everyone’s favorite scenes were picked. Having said that, the scenes chosen were popular…”

With P Ramlee having played everything from an army officer to an amateur actor to a blind musician, not everyone’s favorite scenes were picked. Having said that, the scenes chosen were popular — more than a few audience members including myself were saying the lines along, except when Afiq turned Do Re Mi into three dudes from Perak. An inventive take, even if I was lost at times trying to decipher the loghat. The other scenes featured were selected from Tiga Abdul, Madu Tiga, Ahmad Albab and Hang Jebat, among others. The scenes directed by Arshad Adam and Nik Afiq were particularly favourable, with convincing drama (in Arshad’s scenes) and comedy (in Afiq’s scenes).

The costumes for the ladies of Ramleefestasi

The ladies of Ramleefestasi, l–r: Fiza Mokhtar, Wani, Niessa Aziz, Linda Isa

In the ensemble, Omar Yunus was quite entertaining, especially in showing his dramatic range and comedic timing during the scenes from Anakku Sazali and Do Re Mi. Ejoy Jasni also made for a believable Jebat, carrying on a powerful stage presence in all the scenes he was involved in.

There were also some lovely music breaks backed by the talented (though sometimes cheesy) live band, like Kirin Muhamad’s “Jeritan Batinku” and the duet between Mustaqim Muhamad and Wani for “Engkau Laksana Bulan” as they searched through the still crowd for each other.

As for what was absolutely spot on? Their costumes — good call on changing up from the red and white costumes of the first staging. The men especially raided the right bundle sales and got the whole “berbaju bunga, seluar yankee, berkaki ayam” look down pat. P Ramlee’s style needs to come back, stat.

Ramleefestasi, a revival of P Ramlee's stories and style

Ramleefestasi, a revival of P Ramlee’s stories and style. l-r: Mustaqim Muhamad, Ahmad Dhani, Khazrin, Shahrezza, Ejoy Jasni, Arshad Adam, Jubang Samat, Nik “Chip” Afiq, Ayop Azril, Ammar Izwan, and Shufitri

In the end, however, the Ramleefestasi tagline of “12 sketsa, 4 pengarah, 1 lagenda” rang true. The breaks between the twelve individual scenes were much too obvious, and it was precisely because of the storyline that was supposed to connect them. That may have well been their point, as the focus was after all on P. Ramlee’s works. But interestingly, the flow would have worked much better if the love story spine became the focus, instead of making it fit the reinterpreted P. Ramlee scenes. With dozens of classic scenes to choose from, this would not be hard to do, and everybody would still be giving it up for the man.

It was also a bit of a shame that Beto and Cristina took the lead roles, because they were simply outshone by the other more talented people on stage. Ejoy Jasni would have been a fantastic front man, for example, coming off a lot more secure than Beto’s almost too-quiet reserve. Niessa Aziz or Fiza Mokhtar would have made the leading woman a lot stronger compared to Cristina’s inherent flightiness, channeling the kind of strong grace that Roseyatimah and Normadiah had.

Beto

Sulaiman and Iman — a likeable (though dull) couple played by the popular actors Beto and Cristina.

I also had issue with the fairly dull lead characters themselves, especially that of Iman. I understand the need to pull in audiences, and this new wave of urban Malay theater seems quite fond of showcasing cutesy female actresses in cutesy lead roles. Cristina – dubbed the Malaysian Zooey Deschanel – did bring her manic pixie dream girl A game, which most of the audience seemed to like.

I’m personally bored of characters like Iman, this “cutes tak I?” stock female character prevalent in almost all Malay film/tv/theater these days. Couple that with the way Cristina was made to play said character, Iman honestly felt too one-dimensional and rather out of place compared with everything else that was going on onstage. Was the one-dimensionality necessary for the 12 sketches to stand out, though? I reluctantly suppose so. But I know Khairunazwan is capable of directing more complex female characters (as evident in Tepuk Amai-Amai), so I hope this was purely a commercial rather than an artistic choice.

A P Ramlee theme has enough popular appeal to make anything with his name on it successful, and that’s what this production seemed to be banking on.

I was also disappointed with the mostly uninteresting vocal performances. There were a few striking singing scenes mentioned above, but for the most part it fell a bit flat. Not too good for a show on P Ramlee, whose tunes are a huge reason for why he is so beloved. It didn’t stop the audience from singing along in their seats, however. A P Ramlee theme has enough popular appeal to make anything with his name on it successful, and that’s what this production seemed to be banking on.

The Ramleefestasi band members

The Ramleefestasi musicians: Khazrin (Yen), Ayop Azril, Shahrezza and Ammar Izwan

Tepukan gemuruh beramai-ramai

After the feel-good Ramleefestasi production, the vastly different Tepuk Amai-Amai was staged. Tepuk Amai Amai is a social commentary devised during First Time Workshop, a month-long workshop for beginner actors held last year by Revolution Stage.

The plot centers on the lives of six secondary school students, their parents and their teachers. They begin as typical A-chasing students, but increasing pressure from parents and teachers results in a student revolt and boycott of examinations. This begins a revolution as other students across the country join in. The education system and eventually the whole country plunges into chaos. In the end, the six students are caught by the government to be experimented on, and return as calmer students who realise their efforts matter more than scoring As.

Tepuk Amai-Amai

Tepuk Amai-Amai cast in action: Suhana Othman, Azlin Mohamad, Taufiq Izmir Tawaf, Asyraf Afif, Aznah Mohamed, Nik CHIP Afiq (seated)

The energy onstage was fantastic and the flow as they switched characters and scenes was effective. Everyone took turns being the student, parent and teacher. While it got a little bit too frenetic giving everyone an equal number of lines and character changes, the good execution made up for it. The actresses especially carried the weight of the subject capably, particularly Azlin Mohamad as the screaming parent and student from a dysfunctional family. Nik Afiq of Ramleefestasi returned as Chip, replacing the original actor Azrul Azizi. It was a bit of a stretch for him to be in two productions back to back, as he looked exhausted and missed a few cues. Admirable that he rallied on, but the audience shouldn’t have to forgive an actor for being tired.

The issues brought up were extremely relevant, especially the ones involving their parents. They covered almost all the Malay Malaysian family stereotypes: one student skipped school for seven months without his mother realising; another is the lazy son of a teacher; a mother says to her daughter “Buat apa pergi sekolah? Kau tu bodoh!”; an effeminate boy wants to be a dancer instead of a doctor; a student from a ridiculed family because “diorang tak pandai”; a student with an abusive brother. I’ve seen all these stereotyped played out multiple times in real life, and students have buckled under less pressure.

“The play showed all the complex layers involved in the education system…I don’t just mean the Ministry of Education, but everyone linked to it.”

The play showed all the complex layers involved in the education system — and when I say system, I don’t just mean the Ministry of Education, but everyone linked to it. Parents, teachers, society, and of course the students themselves all have what they want and need from the education system. It showed that little real communication happens between all these seemingly disparate sectors. While the play didn’t come up with any real solutions (aside from government experimentation and an overabundance of cinta, kasih dan sayang), it did an excellent job of highlighting the problems that need to be worked on for our students and the education system to improve in the long run. As a teacher, I say kudos to Revolution Stage for bringing these issues to the fore.

Revolutionising the local Malay stage?

Ticket

Revolution Stage promoted both shows together, driving the audience from Ramleefestasi to Tepuk Amai-Amai

Stacking both of the plays together, it was interesting yet unsurprising that while Ramleefestasi was the weaker production overall, it attracted more audiences than the tighter and more thought-provoking Tepuk Amai-Amai. But here’s the thing: it’s great that shows like these are getting more and more people to the theater at all, something that local theater has been trying to do for a while.

Revolution Stage is one of the current leaders of this “new Malay theater”, if I may call it that, and they are doing a great job in building audiences by staging shows of very decent standards that have popular appeal. Ramleefestasi brought in the crowds, sure, but it also turned people on to watch a show like Tepuk Amai-Amai, which in most other cases (including its first staging) would have been poorly attended. Of course, having popular actors headlining their shows, getting into social media, and putting up extras at their shows like a post-it feedback board and merchandise sales help.

“…Even five years ago, local theater would not have had the gaggle of hipster university students that crowded Revolution Stage’s shows. It’s a precious market to tap into and Revolution Stage did it.”

I’m willing to bet that even five years ago, local theater would not have had the gaggle of hipster university students that crowded Revolution Stage’s shows. It’s a precious market to tap into and Revolution Stage did it. A revolution? I think so. I will doff my hat to them if they target the large warga emas sector of the community next.

Keep on truckin’, Revolution Stage. You guys are clearly living up to your name.

*Ramleefestasi ran from 21st to 24th March, and Tepuk Amai-Amai the week after from 29th to 31st March. Both shows were at Morne Art Gallery, Menara Mara and entrance was RM25 each. Revolution Stage is currently in the midst of restaging previous shows as part of Projek Pentas Balik, and you can find out more from their Facebook page.