Checkpoint Theatre presents Atomic Jaya at the SOTA Drama Theatre from October 24 to November 1 2013.
Written and directed by Huzir Sulaiman, this play is a political satire and a broad-based comedy about Mary Yuen (played by both Karen Tan and Claire Wong), a scientist recruited by the government of Malaysia to build the country’s first atomic bomb. With both actresses taking on multiple roles portraying a myriad of comical and satirical characters that come into her life, Mary Yuen begins to face self-doubt and conflict as she questions the building of such a bomb.
Sulaiman is known to have a very observant and analytical take on his subjects and Atomic Jaya is no different. However, this time around, he also injects humour – both broad and political – eliciting laughs at the slapstick moments as well as the witty dialogue.
Sulaiman also directs both the actresses effectively, at times incorporating a kind of mirror effect where both actresses are literally speaking the same dialogue, and at times having the actresses take over each other’s role mid-scene. It is through these clever techniques that two actresses are able to present to us a full-fledged play with a variety of quirky characters.
The actresses themselves, Wong and Tan, both display great skill in portraying no fewer than a dozen characters between them. Sporting a multitude of accents, mannerisms, body language, gestures and speech patterns, both actresses bring to life each and every person they play on stage.
The only slight problem I had was that there were some characters that were better portrayed by one actress than the other, and the difference between the portrayals was sometimes rather obvious. Tan tried explaining it at the Q&A session as a form of human interaction, whereby one sees/hears a person differently from the way another does. I’m not completely convinced by that argument, and feel that the actress best suited for that role should have carried it till the end.
The surprising thing about Atomic Jaya is that it was written by Sulaiman about 15 years ago and is still well received today. Did he know he was writing something so timeless all those years ago? I asked during the Q&A session. He replied that he didn’t. He merely wrote what was relevant and happening around him at the time. Sulaiman’s observant eye is probably what makes Atomic Jaya so funny and insightful, from the distinct comical traits of his characters to the words he employs in the dialogue.
It isn’t every day that a local play, about local people and local issues, comes along that is as funny or more so than the best-heralded comedy from the West. All right, the play is really about our neighbours, whom we in Singapore used to share a nation with. So there’s a cultural similarity there – and better yet, a reason for Singaporeans to see a very funny, insightful play that’s ultimately about themselves.