Theater actors Nabil Zakaria and Jun Teoh, as the protagonist of the upcoming revival of Irish playwright Brian Friel’s classic play Philadelphia, here I come!can identify with the duality of having a public and private personality.
Teoh and Nabil play restless “Danny Tan” in KLPac’s adaptation of Philadelphia, here I come!, directed by veteran director Joe Hasham. Presented by The Actors Studio Seni Teater Rakyat, the 140-minute play (with two intermissions) will be on stage July 9-17 at Pentas 2, KLPac.
Originally set in the fictional town of Ballybeg, Ireland, Hasham’s version of Philadelphia, here I come!takes place in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, the land of bustling neighborhoods and endless traffic jams where the Tan family runs a convenience store.
Young Danny Tan is set to trade his stuffy home and nasi lemak country for the bright lights of Philadelphia in the United States. But is the grass really greener on the other side?
This is where the two actors come into their own in this show, which is one of the major productions of the year for KLPac.
Teoh plays “Danny Public”, the character he shows the world, while Nabil plays “Danny Private”, his inner voice.
“I’ve put up many walls in my life to function in a normal society. The private side of me is like a child or a clown but I can’t express myself that way publicly. It’s a struggle. But with this piece, I’m questioning those walls. I realize that it’s about coming to terms with yourself. It’s a beautiful, beautiful struggle,” Teoh, 28, said in a recent interview after a repeat at KLPac.
Both actors entered their roles with a series of experiences from their own lives.
“When I was younger, ‘Nabil Private’ was a big part of my life. I put on a lot of masks, acting differently with different people. Sometimes it felt like there were two people living inside me. “says Nabil, 32 years old.
“The duality of an individual has always been something that is familiar to me and that is what attracted me to this piece. I see the similarities between my personal life and Danny’s. I know what he’s going through.
“But, I’ve lost a lot of my masks now, which makes Nabil Private smaller. He’s still there but I think Nabil Public is the main man now,” he adds.
Australian-born Hasham, who took on the role of Public Gareth (Danny Public) in a 1969 production of Philadelphia, here I come! in Perth, is no stranger to this Broadway hit.
He first staged the play in 1994 at the Dewan Bandaraya Auditorium in Kuala Lumpur with the late Dicky Cheah and comedian Harith Iskander in the lead roles.
“When I read the play, everything in it – the narrative, the characters, the setting – screamed at me, ‘Hey, that’s very Malaysian!’ And when audiences first watched it, they thought it was an original Malaysian script. That’s how relatable it is,” recalls Hasham, 74, who retconned the show in 1998 and 2013, both garnering critical acclaim.
In The Actors Studio story, Philadelphia, here I come! was the first piece to receive a localized context.
“That’s why I keep going back to it. It’s poignant, hysterically funny, there’s drama, grief, heartache, love and longing. And the genius of having two people playing the same character…awesome!” he adds.
Back to the 1990s
Hasham brought back three original cast members – Datuk Faridah Merican, Patrick Teoh and Andre D’Cruz – to reprise their roles.
The 2022 production also stars Amanda Ang, Freddy Tan, Samuel Low, Tan Meng Kheng, Chloe Lee, Chen Wen Xuen, Daniel Hussin, Nandagopall Mohan Sundarram, Nicholas Lai, and Tin Raman.
The boutique set is brought to life by set designer Yusman Mokhtar and set builder Paul Hasham, lit by lighting designer Amelia Tan with sound design by Christopher Higgs and playwright Omar Ali.
Unlike the previous millennium setting, this upcoming version takes the clock back to 1997 – the year of the handover of Hong Kong (to China), the tragic death of Princess Diana and the hit movie. Titanic.
“We did this because, dramaturgically, we felt going to Philadelphia wasn’t that bad in the 2000s. If a young man (today) had his options, Philadelphia wouldn’t be the place to go. to go. Fixing it in 1997 made more sense,” Hasham says.
The director appreciates the way Philadelphia, here I come!which was first staged at the Gaiety Theater in Dublin in 1964 and was a hit on Broadway, can establish such a strong connection with everyday Malays.
It collects the story of a young man – in his twenties – who can’t wait to leave his house and move to a better country. He also has difficulty communicating easily with his father and they are unable to truly connect.
Themes such as communication, affection, emotional escape and the quest for a new beginning are quite topical.
The play was originally set in the fictional Irish town. The local adaptation of Hasham is set in the suburb of Cheras, where SB Tan (Patrick Teoh) and his son Danny run a convenience store.
“It’s always fun and exciting because with every production there are new people and new talents to work with and learn from. And for me to take on the role (of SB Tan) for the second time is a lot of fun. because I can see the difference in the interaction with these new and younger actors,” says Patrick.
“Part of the play is about communication within the family, which in many Asian contexts is a sensitive and often undiscussed topic. Many relationships have been destroyed by the inability or unwillingness to communicate. Too many regrets after the fact what is happening in the country at the moment,” he adds.
Faridah plays Mak Esah, who in many ways is the pillar of House Tan. She is a mother figure to Danny, who longs for a proper relationship with his father.
“Joe (Hasham) and I are always discussing what we should and can re-stage, not just for us but for the audience who would get a second chance or see it for the first time. And it’s such a good play on the relationship between father and son,” says Faridah.
In the script, Danny’s character, feeling bored and unloved, is ready to make big changes for himself. He accepts his aunt’s (Ang) offer to work with her at a hotel in Philadelphia and start a new life, leaving behind his uncommunicative father, a lost love, and party-loving friends.
Middle class boy Cheras is looking for a fresh start and himself. But things are not so clear cut.
The play takes place the night before Danny leaves and contains many flashbacks to his life before his decision to leave.
At the heart of the piece is this very relevant question: what happens when a place you belong to no longer has any attraction? If it’s possible to fall in love with a person, why not a place too? Do you stay and try to find that love again, or do you move on, hoping to find better things?
There are many reasons why people choose to leave their homes. This is a topic that cannot be ignored in Malaysia.
But more than just the search for greener pastures, Hasham reveals that the story of the play is “love, though it may not be said” and relationships, especially the troubled relationship between Danny and his father.
Hasham recalls his own relationship with his late father, which he admits wasn’t always the best.
” Do not mistake yourself. My father was a wonderful, kind and hardworking man. But because he was so obligated to provide for his family, what he didn’t plan for was emotional contact.
“The communication factor with him was difficult compared to my mother. And I reference those elements in the piece,” Hasham shares, adding that his relationship with his father, who died in 2011, eventually improved.
For Nabil, it was the strained relationship between Danny and his father that drew him to the play.
“It reflects my own relationship with my dad…which isn’t the best. We have our differences,” says Nabil, whose theater stage credits include Dysforia, Kantang and the bee.
“It’s the distance… I recognize it. I know that feeling. But the more I got to know the play, the more I realized that the nature of the relationship was different. Danny wants to know if his father loves him. This is not the case for me and my father,” he adds.
Teoh agrees with Nabil and mentions that the “strange distance” between him and his parents is something he has definitely acknowledged and exploited.
In fact, the actor, whose stage credits include Unit 1918 and Dream of a summer nightmentions that he’s “hard to separate it because it’s so relevant right now to me.”
In fact, Hasham says it’s something audience members know.
“I feel like a lot of Malaysians don’t know the feeling of having a wonderful relationship with their parents, especially young men with their fathers. There’s this restraint, this cultural element that keeps people from showing their emotions.
“I think a lot of the public would probably see themselves in one way or another…either as a child or as a parent. Not only do I find that relevant, but it’s also educational in that if they recognize it, they could do something about it,” Hasham concludes.
“Philadelphia, here I am!” will play at KLPac from July 9-17. More informations here.