A story of a middle-aged woman fighting against societal expectations of marriage comes off sways from being accessible to a bit distant at times.
Gadis Jalan Burmah, directed by Ashraf Zain, is a one-woman show about a ‘deflowered virgin’ (quoting a line from the play) that uses monologue to bring the audience through the many romantic and sexual exploits she’s lived through that brought her to a somewhat gloomy and lonely present. She starts off strong and vaguely aloof, but the more she rambles on, the more you would see her unravel. The character breaks the fourth wall, or at least attempts to, as she invites the audience into her rants, and even talk to them in a semi-direct fashion.
The premise is of the play is intriguing. Playing out as a sequence of unfortunate events; the gadis, named Tini (Farah Rani), talks about in detail about her past relationships. She plays the role of all of her characters she rants about, giving a sort of frantic and dissonant depiction of herself through the lives of many others. Some of the stories were funny, and some were sad – but they were all told in the fashion of a ‘village gossip’ or an ‘aunty charlatan’. It has the potential to grab your attention, as she also oscillates between the many facets of her life, and in turn, her personality.
The operative word here is ‘potential’. The play inadvertently felt draggy, and the monologues grew tiresome. A lot of it probably has to do with the fact that the transition between emotions were unnatural. The difficult risk behind a one-person play such as this is that the entire portrayal of the story depends upon a single actor or actress. The pacing came off as purposeless, and although there were wonderful moments of laughter and emotional turmoil competently executed by Farah Rani, overall her attempts at trying to engage with the audience fell flat. An example of this would be when she playfully talks to the crowd, she seemed visibly affected by a lack of response. Or when a joke is told, and the atmosphere of the room does not resonate with her. Since this was a monologue of introspection and mak jah-type rambling, it was a bit off-putting that she wasn’t adequately lost in her role. A semi-accurate summary of this would be that it was hard to buy into the fact that she was a middle-aged Penang woman at all.
As it unfolds, the pattern in the story grew repetitive. With the exception of one particular scene which wonderfully captures how crazy and tumultuous Tini’s life has been, it is actually a blase endeavour to try and keep track of how she has changed as a person throughout. No real character evolution can be explicitly traced. In scenes where you were supposed to feel sympathy for the mishaps that befell her, it fell short of being heart-rending. Granted, maybe that’s not really a fault, as the play might seek to portray how much of a vicious cycle loneliness can be, even as you battle against societal perceptions.
The writing, when evaluated independently, is refreshingly witty and fun. Redza Minhat – scriptwriter – weaves social commentary into the ramblings in a not-so-subtle-manner. It was conveyed smartly through one-liners and funny conversations that Tini has with the men she dated and her somewhat naive, well-meaning family. Jokes about ‘Syed’s’ and ‘Sharifah’s’ expounding the elitism in our community, to remarks about religious officers might be too on-the-nose at times, but overall was amusing enough to credit. Due accolades also must be given to the lighting design as well, done by Armanzaki Amirolzakri, as it gives life to an otherwise minimal setting, as you follow Tini through her flashbacks, panic attacks or sexual soliloquy.
There are enough silver linings that can be extracted from its jarring flaws. Especially for people who fall within that demographic, there will be enough tales that could push a few buttons, or would pass as relatable and poignant. Even if executed insufficiently, the narrative itself holds many things one can learn from or find empathy in. The message of marriage expectations, solitude and independence, laced with a twist that is closer to home would still render the existence of a play like Gadis Jalan Burmah necessary. Even if it is not necessarily good.
If you’re interested in watching Gadis Jalan Burmah, it is still showing today and for the rest of this weekend at Kotak@Five Arts Centre. To get more details on the time and ticket prices, head on over to their Facebook!
CORRECTION: The lighting designer was mistakenly named as Syamsul Azhar, when it’s actually Armanzaki Amirolzakri.