A monodrama that reels you in amidst a split second of debilitating monotony. No repentance included.
Originally a short story by Cech Adrea, he takes on the mantle of director in making this minimal version of hell suit the stage. The world however is carried by the acting prowess of IlyaHida (also known in the music scene as Leaism). Her solo presence on the stage filled the room at almost every turn. Yes, IlyaHida carries the stage alone, acting-wise, it being a monodrama and all – plays multiple characters herself to convey a more solitary narrative. This is a first-person story.
Tukang Pasang Bunting Neraka‘s story is almost as absurdist as its title. IlyaHida acts as a person whose job is to put up buntings (vertical flags often used to promote events). Later on, she finds herself dead after a hit-and-run-incident during the travails of her daily bunting-related occupation. The play welcomes this with the slightly cheesy but charming usage of the Queen’s song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody‘, as Ilya’s character is thrown into the realm of the unknown. As she wakes up shivering, she tells the audience where she is: a cold version of hell. The point of whimsy I remember fondly came from a line in this play that goes, “Neraka pun kapitalis”, as Ilya explains that in this hell, people are punished by forcing to do their Earth job every single day with no hope of resigning or getting a promotion – an endless repetition adorned with ersatz, kitschy establishments you can find on Earth, complete with a sushi place. At this sushi place is where she meets a woman who would later reveal herself to be the driver of the aforementioned car which brought her to this blistering cold inferno.
The monodrama’s strength is predominantly in Cech’s writing. It’s ironic humour not aimed at creating guffaws of laughter, but to make you chuckle when a detail is emphasized. A favourite part of mine is the hit-and-run perpretator disclosing that she’s a hijab seller (“Saya penjual tudung. Di NERAKA“). The underlying joke is strengthened by its incorporation in the play as just casual parts of the world, subverting expectations like making hell cold, or making it absolutely silent. There’s also this really loud fact that it’s a world not unlike our world, where businesses still need buntings to promote their hell-based selves. The dark comedy rarely feels too pointed, and throws you gently enough into a realm of thought.
On stage, there is nothing but a bunting to conjure this world in your head – that, and IlyaHida’s command of the script. The setting is drawn through the use of noir-esque monologues, as Ilya acts as both the storyteller and all the besotted characters of Tukang Pasang Bunting Neraka. Cech’s direction circles around the need for emphasis and repetition, and Ilya competently switches between moods, characters and movements. There are moments of erratic explosions, nuanced emotions – all of those competently juggled by the actress as she lights up a cigarette while talking about lighting up a cigarette. The result is occasionally harrowing, instead of humorous. It is difficult to keep a play interesting through the crutch of narration, but because Ilya’s character traverses through dimensions as both an all-knowing observer and a pawn, the momentum is maintained.
In a play surrounding the dangers of vandalizing the buntings people trust you with (clue: the danger is you go to hell), it is also very appropriate that the problem with the play is their sole prop – the bunting. Sticking to a minimal approach means allowing the audience to subliminally or directly create their own vision onto the stage – like an empty canvas with only the guide of inspiration via character and director. However, the presence of a Sisiseni bunting (Sisiseni: the production house which staged Tukang Pasang Bunting Neraka) took me off of that magic. Immediately, albeit inadvertently, the world becomes restricted simply because I was distracted by the implication that the hell concerned is just the theatre space we’re in, and not a real enough world written by the spirits of fiction. It would have probably been better off if the bunting was blank, or specifically created for the purpose of this hell. It was a minor discrepancy that ended up bothering me quite a bit – “does hell have performing arts? That’s possible because people in Cech’s hell just do the jobs they do on Earth everyday, I wonder if they only stage Dante’s Inferno – oh wait, I just missed what Ilya said? Where are we? Oh, the restaurant”.
Other than that, the premise of the play is etched sufficiently deep into my brain. A hell that is punitive not because of the torture of spikes or fire, but of incessant routine. The absence of free will ruminates the possibility that what hurts more than physical torment is the inability to choose. What allows that choice is also the capacity for us to forgive and for others to forgive us – which as you’ll find in the story is an impossibility. Cech Adrea does a decent job in translating the rhythm of prose from his cerpen into the shape of a play, and his choice to execute it as a monodrama is a great one. If it gets a restaging, I implore every working person to watch it. An intriguing piece to ponder.
3.9 / 5
Tukang Pasang Bunting Neraka was staged at Bleenkbox, Petaling Jaya from 31 Oct – 4 Nov 2018. It is done as a collaboration between Bleenk Box and Sisiseni. Follow Sisiseni on Instagram for more updates on future projects.
Featured Image source: Shufitri Mohd Shukardi.