Kulit On The Go, a skin story

I’m sitting in the semi-darkness along with an audience, mesmerized by the performance of Erwin Shah Ismail, in a one-man act dubbed, Kulit On The Go.

Kulit On The Go, opens with a song
I settle comfortably into my seat, ready to be impressed and entertained because the pleasure derived from watching a monologue largely depends on the knowledge and imagination of the audience.

Armed with a travelling bag and minimum props, this monologue – written and performed by stage and screen actor, Erwin Shah Ismail – is presented on the first day of the month-long 15th Johor Arts Festival.

In the opening scene, as Erwin sings while strumming his ukulele, I’m already charmed by the timbre in his voice.

The voice pitch of the actor is pivotal, particularly in a monologue as it conjures images and ideas merely from his voice and accent.

I liked how Erwin comfortably morphs into a range of characters – recognized mainly through his voice – and the use of simple props.

He dons a wide brim Stetson hat and struts about with hands in his pockets and speaks American English with a heavy Texan drawl.

Erwin speaking American English
with a heavy Texan drawl
It takes a bit of time to make out what he’s saying from the obviously lengthened and drawn-out vowels but he cuts a mean portrayal of a typical character out of the Wild West.

He warbled away, discussing the topic – from farm to fashion – about how cows are bred for milk and meat, and how its hide is turned into durable fashion accessories like quality bags, belts and shoes.

When he describes how the cow is stripped of its hide, he also dramatically unzips his top and throws it to the ground as he keeps the audience focused on his words...

The clever play of lights keeps the focus on the actor who moves across a small space to bring the audience with him to various scenes in the drama.

Erwin is Singaporean Malay and I give him full-marks for being so comfortably multi-lingual in Chinese language, both in Mandarin and Hokkien dialect.

[I’m not ashamed to admit that he speaks more fluently and accurately than I do!]

He strips off his top...
He talks about tanning the cow hide (in Hokkien!) and my thoughts flash to how Johor was once the world’s largest exporter of gambier, mainly used as a tanning agent back in the 19th century…

Then Erwin is at home with his mother and they chat in Malay. In a typically Malay scenario, he sits on a woven mat spread out on the floor, to have tea.

Later he puts on his artisan’s apron and sits down to craft a leather accessory from a piece of cow hide while giving the audience blow-by-blow instructions on how to achieve the best results.

Erwin skillfully engages with the audience and even invited individuals to participate with him as part of the performance.

The message of the monologue is achieved when thought-provoking seeds are planted in the minds of the audience, to take home and ponder upon.

At the close of the show, the audience is invited to stay as the actor and director pull up chairs and sit down for a chat with the audience, within an intimate circle.

This show is the result of a collaboration between Erwin and director, Richard Tan, better known as Baba Richard for his straits-born heritage, for a commissioned 20-minute monologue back in 2016.

They tell us that since the first show, the drama had organically evolved to what it is today.

Erwin Shah Ismail [Right] and director, Baba Richard Tan
It is a highly “portable” show with the props conveniently packed into one travelling bag.

When the time was ripe to “take it on the road,” Johor Baru is its first stop as part of the first leg of their first international tour.

This is only the beginning for Kulit On The Go.

It still has a journey to travel before this monologue can be fully appreciated for what it’s worth.

Maybe one fine day, we can look back on this first show in JB in its international tour – which made history – and then see how far this monologue has gone?

So I leave, pondering on cow hide and tanning, the cow population vs humans, methane and vegans and how a Malay young man, using multi-languages in a monologue, successfully engaged the attention of a mixed audience of Asians and non-Asians.

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