The Play’s The Thing by Wil E. O’Dysseus
Source: Dialy FT
So I had a one-night stand. No, not with Freddy at Temple Trees. But with his third avatar at the Lionel Wendt. They called it ‘A New Hope’. I can see why. It was dangerous, exciting, and challenging – a little like the George Lucas franchise from where StageLight&Magic impresario Feroze Kamardeen a.k.a. FK gets his subtitles.
My interest was piqued by a review in these very same columns a few years ago. I read a comment by theatre critic W. O. R. D’Smythe, who wrote: “Congratulations again to FK for discovering or inventing a new vehicle for satire and sociopolitical commentary.” And added later in his or her (for Smythe remains mysteriously anonymous) review: “Now that we’re slowly transforming from a post-war to a post-conflict society, we can all ‘sit back, relax, and enjoy the show’.”
Now the problem with FK, I suspect, is that he can never relax. At least, to go by his neo-comedic franchise, he’s constantly on the edge… about this, that, and the other. In Freddy’s first incarnation, the actor turned writer-director focussed an unforgiving spotlight on the daylight robbery banks foist on unsuspecting customers; punctured posh restaurants in our metropolis and their pretentious maitre d’s; and pricked Colombo audiences’ political conscience by demonstrating unmistakeably that their elected representatives don’t give a flying F (or even a K) once in power. Err, sorry, at your service.
Then there was Freddy 2 – or, as FK likes to call it, ‘Freddy Strikes Back’. To be honest, I can’t quite remember what sacred cows Feroze & Co. lassoed and corralled in that episode. But I recall being in stitches at the wit and wisecracking. Even if the critics strangely ignored that offering. Maybe too much of a good thing is good for nothing – like eating an endless meal of chicken gizzards with fried onion rings. I mean I like them, but not ad infinitum.
And last but by no means least there was Freddy’s ‘One Night Stand’ at no less venerable a venue than Temple Trees. Boy! that was a riot, rescue operation and rat-a-tat-tat directed at a gamut of institutions – from the political old boy network to our savvy premier sitting there like a stone idol himself. (Freddy’s lads insinuated nicely that there was no discernible difference between the two of these!)
As newcomer commentator W. Izard – another pseudonym, I’m sure; or perhaps Izardeen, some relative of Kamardeen? – hazarded: “Freddy went from being a mysterious person Missing In Action throughout a series of trite farces to a very funny figure (still MIA) for whom no cow – political, social, cultural, religious – was sacred.” Izard added: “It was a formula that worked as well for the comedians as much as the capital’s consumers of humour with a point: in fact, a subversive agenda.” I also agree with that anonymous reviewer that “there was more potential in this explosive art form than many staid productions plodding across Colombo stages”.
But I sense your impatience. And I sympathise. You don’t want to know what a bunch of surreptitious armchair critics essayed. You want to know what simple Wil E., a ticket-buying member of the public, thought of Freddy 3. Right? That’s why you’re reading this avidly so far, no!
The players themselves, in their star-spangled glory (or alternatively, gaucheness), speak volumes for plurality and inclusiveness. From diverse walks of life, products of sundry alma maters, representing at least two of Colombo’s growing number of genders!
Brutal liver punch
(In an aside – ok, a long one – about plurality and inclusiveness: I was drawn up short by how patriarchal our capital’s opinion-shapers and thought-leaders can be, were, or have become perhaps unknowingly. In a scathing broadside on business voice LMD, arguably the country’s leading big-picture journal, Feroze cauterised their conscience on what turns out to be an abysmal track record – in terms of selecting their ‘Sri Lankans of the Year’ or SLOTYs. After 25 years of publication, only two women SLOTYs – a sports star and a Bahrain-born newbie Bollywood actress! And Kamardeen’s sardonic mouthpiece – the stand-up tyro Shannon Misso – was superbly sarcastic in musing idly… that she couldn’t think of a single Sri Lankan woman who made the cut – while name after name of female high-achievers came up on the multimedia screen behind her! That was a neatly executed dig in LMD’s ribs! Food for thought for the magazine’s editors…)
But it was the sheer range of other topics that challenged, stunned (surprised/shocked), enthused ardent fans of this increasingly popular franchise. From the fickleness of a supposedly free media to the antisocial so-called social media, through Muslim marriages and Burgher mores, to a plethora of wars – civic, sexual, ethnocentric – Freddy tripped the light fantastic through a minefield of no-go zones. And combining not very gentle humour with often gingerly probing questions and answers, this genre succeeded in both raising awareness of critical issues while supplying possible remedies with a slightly didactic touch. If Freddy sought to teach, rather than simply show and tell, it may well be because we Sri Lankans are notoriously ignorant of the real issues an entire planet faces – and apathetic to our role in correcting our own flaws and failings in this regard?
Speaking of ‘broad spectrum’ – a nice new touch was the introduction of a comedienne into Freddy’s band of brothers. Where the usual suspects – an all-male line-up since the franchise’s inception – once strutted and fretted, Shannon Misso (‘not Raymond, dear, he’s the undertaker’) sashayed her way into her fans’ affections. Not surprisingly, they were mostly female, for the gentler sex responded well to her gender-loaded championing of their many causes. It’s been a long time coming, Feroze, but hats off to you for finally taking the plunge and admitting a lady wit to your ranks! LMD could take a leaf out of your book… and maybe it will… soon…
Boys will be boys
With that said, the boys were on fire too. Nisal, HI!! and standing in for much loved short stuff lawyer Daminda Wijeratne, BYE!!, was a good start to what turned out to be a great show. Adin, hopping about on one foot (“odu da!”) had a dangerously explosive mix of confession and challenge – making audiences smile hysterically and fall silent in stricken thought, in rapid alternation. Dino, boyish and charming, was subtle and subversive in turns – lampooning schoolboy pretentiousness (“Namal MP machang bro dude”) and lynching sinister politicos in his avatar as a drunken Sumané. And Ifaz, seemingly a nice guy to the core – slight lapses of memory adding to his empathetic appeal disguised as a stunt – remembered the peccadilloes of his community well enough to satirise their silliness. Yasas Ratnayake, a more nuanced and slightly better controlled replacement for the manic ‘faluda’-mouthed Gehan Blok, brought humour to matters military, masturbatory fantasies, and Mahinda’s forgetfulness et al.; and is something of a find for the Freddy franchise.
But seriously, folks!
There was a weightier side to all of the high-jinks. These pressing issues – underage Muslim marriages and their divorce act; petty petit-bourgeoisie gossiping; political chicanery – are hot potatoes that lesser mortals pass on cautiously before their fingers get burned. But not FK; so well said, Fred! Hope you get to do female circumcision, Catholic moral hypocrisy, the poison of religion in town hall and market square, etc.
Hope also that audiences took note of all that was said and that eventually, stand-up as a genre will come to critically engage society profitably – where parents and pundits and political leaders have failed to conscientise a lost generation of adult children – who still laugh inanely at war victims losing limbs, think poking fun at ‘outstation schools’ is acceptable, or fall over themselves hysterically when there’s the slightest sexual innuendo. It is to Kamardeen’s credit that he is willing and able to take on sacred cows, even if he seems like a bull in a china shop to his elders and betters. I hope he develops the testicular fortitude (“balls!” – to you) to bell the sinister cat of Sinhala-Buddhist exceptionalism and particularity one day soon. In Freddy 4: Return of the Jade Eye, perhaps?
Hope springs eternal in the human breast. And despite all the atrocious puns (HI!! magazine’s sister act BYE!! – for deaths and divorces – and TATA-BYE if they tie up with an Indian giant), and entirely forgivable fumbles, one truly hopes that Freddy’s message hits home hard… To wit, that we’re all human; that we’re one Sri Lanka; and that the people must take responsibility for the political animals they unthinkingly elect year after year…
More than ever, the nexus between a free media and transforming societies through critical engagement with political leaders was emphasised. For instance, writer Dharisha Bastians’ tweet-based challenge to political princes was appreciated. And Freddy nodded generously to editor Wijith DeChickera (‘speaking truth to power’) and reporter Azzam Ameen (‘extracting the truth from the powers that be’).
But while the audience lapped up the caricature at the journalists’ expense, perhaps little did they realise that they – average, everyday, individual, ordinary, unassuming members of the public – were the key to the societal change that satire and parody suggest or recommend, if not demand. True to form, Freddy’s songs at the end of each segment hinted broadly at developing a strong Sri Lankan national identity and stepping up to the plate to safeguard all that’s well and good in our once blessed isle. Hopes spring eternal that theatregoers (some of whom were momentarily stunned into rigidity by a suddenly floodlit balcony, as part of Feroze’s irrepressible showmanship) won’t be similarly gobsmacked when confronted by the harsh glare of reality.
Bloody good show
And that paparé session at the end, while definitely feel-good, may be in danger of enthusing likeminded citizens to celebrate the triumph of rib-tickling stand-up over sinister forces in the real world. Thus it is incumbent on civil society – media, professional, academics, as much as members of the public – to carry the flame that Freddy’s torches set alight over this weekend. All said, a smashing time was had by all. Just let us hope – in a truly new hope for Mother Sri Lanka – that the empire of evil driven by power-hungry politicos doesn’t strike back, and that the chauvinistically sick ethno-nationalists don’t plot their revenge in a fresh attack of cloned ignorance.