Saturday, January 22, 2011
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Saw this at KLPAC a month ago. The highlight of the play, I think, is Calvin Tan Han Jin's performance as the younger version of the titular Birdy. That the actor is just eighteen-years-old is all the more remarkable; definitely a promising talent that had the good fortune of being offered a role that he's probably quite suitable for (as long as he is daring enough to grab it by the horns and give it everything he's got, which it looks like he did) this early in his career, and probably also due to the direction of experienced KLPAC and T4YP director Christopher Ling.
The play itself, which I later found out was based on a movie (itself based on a novel) directed by Alan Parker (Bugsy Malone, Evita) and starring Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage, is intriguing for its subject matter. I often find it a mystery how playwrights arrive at the particular plot for their plays: they're almost never obvious the way movies are, and also (for lack of a better word) rather arbitrary. The play depicts a pair of boyhood friends – one an eccentric outcast who becomes increasingly infatuated with birds, the other suffering domestic abuse but otherwise suffering from the usual teenage-boy hormonal issues – in two stages of their lives: their carefree adolescent days, and during the war after both have been scarred by their experiences.
The writing is nothing to shout about, it's fairly straightforward and it works. The problem it presented is that it is an American play that has to be delivered by Malaysian actors using neutrally international accents. Try as they might it just never quite works, as it is not easy for Malaysians who don't naturally have at least a faux-British or faux-American accent to pull it off consistently and undistractingly, and the only actor in the play who managed to do it without pulling me out of the play is Darius Taraporvala, who plays the army psychiatrist Weiss. It helped if the performance was compelling, and in this case Calvin Tan's performance does actually help reduce the disconnect caused by his slight Malaysian-tinged accent. Tung Jit Yan and Michael Chen, who play Birdy's friend Al in two different ages, didn't fare so well here – though the latter better than the former.
Michael's a friend so this may be slightly uncomfortable but it has to be said: he still needs to improve on his acting. One big positive is that at least technically he's sound: he told me himself he's got the most lines (and it's heck of a lot) but I never heard him slip up once. The thing is though, there is no variation in his performance. Granted the grown-up Al Columbato is one fucked-up, angry sonofabitch, but I doubt it warrants him speaking in the same seething tone through the entire play. In my mind his performance would've breathe and connect with the audience if he had been able to vary his intonation and delivery according to the changes of beats to the scene.
The score and sound design bears a mention. Basically they work; though with the sound design, occasionally the ambient city rumble and birdcalls overpower the dialogue (or equally, we could blame the actors who could've spoken louder), but otherwise having these diegetic sounds is a welcome supplement to the experience of the play.
Overall it wasn't a boring play, and continues to support my theory that of all plays staged in Malaysia, Western-originated plays are far, far less likely to disappoint than locally-written plays.