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A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum
 
06/05/2002
The Edge
WHAT'S THE FORUM GOT TO DO WITH IT?
On the strength of this play, "Malaysia Boleh" will rule the world
By Jerome Kugan

It's true. The Americanisation of the world is upon us. Look at how Disney appropriated everything from Russia's Anastasia to China's Mulan and turned them into cartoons. And look at how Coca-Cola turned a robe-wearing St Nicholas into the jolly red-and-white human beanbag Santa Claus. It's cultural imperialism, I tells you!

Ohmigod, protect your children! Cover their noses, shield their eyes, conceal their private parts lest they become: Pamela Anderson. Or worse: Monica Lewinsky.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is a case in point. Based on a Roman comedy written by Plautus, Stephen Sondheim's 1962 musical adaptation is an example of how Americans can digest culture and spit it out as fabulous-ness. (There's no Pam, but a lot of ham!)

And to take American slough and filter it through the Malaysian experience, now that's something groundbreaking. Just think: the Malaysianisation of the world. Just imagine: Shakespeare in a sarung and selipar. Oh, no need for codpieces-lah, dah-ling! Just keep those knees together ya!

A-n-y-w-a-y, here's the deal: Just when you thought Malaysia's best-known celebrity gastronomic guru Chef Wan had gleefully fingered all the dishes on the banquet spread, here he comes traipsing through Forum (not in a cameo appearance, mind you, but) as the show's main character, a jester-like slave named Pseudolus. (It's just oh so pseudo, y'know!)

And just as millions of Malaysian (not to mention Singaporean) housewives have chuckled at Chef Wan's antics as he fussed over tumeric and fish, now you can pay for the privilege of seeing him dressed in powder-blue-and-white-striped pyjamas playing matchmaker to a pair of seet-yet-clueless lovebirds in exchange for his freedom.

You can chuckle too, as he occasionally peppers his lines with some of his oh-you-must-understand-lah-my-English-not-so-good throwaway BM phrases (for a bit of that Malaysian flavour-lah, y'know, kan?) and decide whether or not he should have a comedy variety of his own. (Shudder.)

Oh, the travails of Malaysian comedy! Forget that the rest of the cast, the musical direction and choreography are wonderful, who would have thought that Chef Wan had a Cheshire cat in him? Bless the legendary dude. (Snigger.)

A-n-y-w-a-y, just so y'know what the roger is all about: Sheltered Roman youth falls in love with a Cretan Barbie doll who's betrothed to a cocky Roman via a pimp. Youth asks slave to help get doll. Slave fools the pimp, says doll has plague. Pimp hands over doll, doll gets passed off as maid. Youth's sexually-repressed father makes pass at doll-cum-maid. Youth's mother gets jealous and makes pass at Roman general. Roman general and doll-cum-maid finds out they're more than groom-and-bride-to-be.

In short: bawdiness, tomfoolery, deception, political incorrectness, satire, farce - humour at the expense of depth, but not without edgy wit. What can I say? Let's just call it camp. (And with Chef Wan holding the eggbeater, let's call it camp à la Malaysia.)

With the whole cast thinking they're in ancient Rome and going toga gaga from delusions of grandeur, this production just proves how intelligently vapid the future of Malaysian comedy can be. Everybody, 1-2-3: Hurrah!

Of course, you might say it takes talent to pull off Broadway "fluff" in a swanky underground venue next to a Saloma-theme restaurant, but Gardner & Wife can pat themselves on the back with this all-too-uneven madcap that has nothing whatsoever to do with the forum or what happened on the way to it (which is cunningly deliberate, mind you).

Still, dear reader, please don't forget that this is a musical comedy, and a Sondheim at that. Don't slaughter your critical pussies over this and wrench your brain cells to understand its subtextual complexities. Go, you fools, go and enjoy it for all its worth. As the opening (and closing) number aptly declares: Tragedy tomorrow, Comedy tonight!