Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Is Zelo a Hero?

Urg. That was the headline given to my review of Agni Kootthu's O$P$ in yesterday's Life! I'm getting paid for it (thanks for the lobang Xinyi!), so I can't complain, but I figure I might as well post the review as I originally wrote it - without the introduction cut out.

(In case it wasn't apparent in the review, I thought Max Ling from certain angles was pretty hot. Or maybe I just wanna fuck a samseng)

Cruel joy

Agni Kootthu
Guinness Theatre
Ng Yi-Sheng

This is a dangerous play to watch. I came to O$P$ (OweMoneyPayMoney) expecting a documentary of social victimhood in the world of illegal money-lending. What I encountered was something greater; a powerful tale of a tragic hero, all the more empathetic for his psychotic cruelty.

In this one-man show, actor Max Ling tells the story of Zelo, a debt collector famed among loan sharks for his creative viciousness in exacting punishment on debtors. Yet he has a crisis of his own: his ex-wife refuses to let him visit their retarded daughter.

Zelo comes across as an overgrown schoolboy, by turns charming, threatening and pathetic, especially pitiful when offering toys to his unresponsive child. But one discovers one feels closest to the protagonist at moments of extreme violence - on smashing his father-in-law's corridor plants, or beating up a handphone user in a cinema. Zelo reminds us that there's a madman in all of us, capable of havoc.

Playwright-director Elangovan is renowned for his investigations into the world of the underclasses, such as Buang Suay, about an Indian prostitute. It's unusual for him to structure a play around a perpetrator rather than a victim of violence, but he does this with flair, working with Ling to develop a believable portrait of a Chinese samseng, scripted in English, Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese.

Ling's skills in physical theatre yield an excellent performance, featuring distinctive swaggers, operatic stances and martial arts. His elastic face and acrobatic athleticism allow him to switch characters in an instant, playing both the furious debt collector and the fearful debtor cowering beneath.

Yet sadly, he conveys little variation in voices, thus confusing several characters in one's mind. And while initially gripping, Elangovan's scenes eventually become formulaic, almost inevitably ending with Zelo's brutal outbursts. Thankfully, the play climaxed before this cycle became wearisome.

In terms of stagecraft, Agni Kootthu triumphs through cunning use of a spartan selection of props. In the final scene, mere smears of ultraviolet paint and two flashlights enable Ling to transform into a luminous skeleton, bones daubed on his body, plucking circles of light from the air to feed his hungry mouth.

In a time of sophisticated theatre, the pared-down, minimalist violence of O$P$ delivers a jolt of raw, cathartic energy to the jaded viewer. One can't help but love Zelo - as an outlaw, he wreaks chaos not for just the moneylender, but on our behalf.

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