Best Supporting Actress nominees take on everything from beauty to beast

Elizabeth Lazan. -- PHOTO: LESLIE HASSLER
Elizabeth Lazan. -- PHOTO: LESLIE HASSLER
Jo Kukathas. -- PHOTO: FAIZAL MUSTAFA PHOTOGRAPHY
Jo Kukathas. -- PHOTO: FAIZAL MUSTAFA PHOTOGRAPHY
Siti Khalijah Zainal. -- PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Siti Khalijah Zainal. -- PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

The three nominees for Best Supporting Actress in this year's Life! Theatre Awards took on a wide range of roles

This year's Best Supporting Actress nominees were honoured for their work on roles ranging from a nubile, young beauty, to a jovial river ogre, who is, well, not even a woman.

Leading the pack is prominent Malaysian actress-director Jo Kukathas, who took home the Best Actress trophy in 2013 for playing a feisty old lady who finds love during World War II in Checkpoint Theatre's Occupation.

This time, she is being nominated for her turn as Poncia, the piercingly shrewd head servant in The House Of Bernarda Alba, a Wild Rice production.

Also nominated for a Wild Rice production is Siti Khalijah Zainal.

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She is in the race for her side-splitting pantomime performance as the goddess Guan Yin and a river ogre named Sandy in Monkey Goes West, a localised take on the Chinese epic Journey To The West.

With four previous acting nominations and one win under her belt, she looks set to give Kukathas a run for her money.

Rounding off the nominations is first-time nominee Elizabeth Lazan.

The Los Angeles-based actress was recognised for her portrayal of a svelte, spiteful bombshell in Pangdemonium's dark comedy Fat Pig.

The Supporting Actress award, among others, will be given out on April 20 at the 15th Life! Theatre Awards ceremony, an invite-only event held at the Esplanade Recital Studio.

jianxuan@sph.com.sg

Go to www.straitstimes.com/life-theatre-awards-2015 for the complete list of this year's nominees and full coverage of the awards.


Siti Khalijah Zainal

Nominated for: Monkey Goes West (Wild Rice)

Previous nominations: Best Actress for How Did The Cat Get So Fat (Teater Ekamatra, 2006), Nadirah (Teater Ekamatra, 2009), Desire At The Melancholic String Concert (Cake Theatrical Productions, 2011); Best Supporting Actress for Good People (The Necessary Stage, 2007)

Previous wins: Best Actress for Model Citizens (Teater Ekamatra, 2010)

Siti Khalijah Zainal was possibly the last person anyone, herself included, would have imagined to be cast as the male river ogre Sandy from the Chinese epic Journey To The West.

"This was my first drag role and as a monster," says the 29-year-old Malay actress with a hearty laugh. "It was hard because I'm not Chinese, so I researched by YouTubing different versions of the show."

She was also tasked to double up as the goddess Guan Yin.

"Getting into the roles was tough, especially Guan Yin, because she is a heavenly, imperious character. Then there were the costume changes, especially the last part, when I had only 30 seconds to change. But a pantomime was the perfect way to end the year - just singing and dancing," she says.

Her performance was lauded by Life! theatre reviewer Lisabel Ting, who noted she provided "rich comedy gold… with such aplomb that the audience giggled at everything she said, intentionally funny or not".

It is perhaps her chameleon- like versatility that prompted this casting - she has in the past sunk her teeth into myriad roles, from a wry, sharp-tongued nurse in Good People (2007), to an Indonesian maid interceding for a boyfriend accused of homicide in Model Citizens (2010), a turn that earned her a Best Actress nod in 2011.

"I'm very excited about it. I know most people are focused on the lead roles, but I enjoy supporting roles because although you don't appear so often, you make the best out of it when you do," she says.

Despite her relatively young age, Siti has logged four Life! Theatre Award nominations and a win. Last year, she received the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award, which recognises promising artists under the age of 35.

But she is not resting on her laurels. On the contrary, she muses: "I'm at the stage of my career where, despite what I've been doing, I still have a long way to go. I'm turning 30 this year and I feel like I've so much more to give. Theatre has no limitations - you can technically play anything. I certainly have."

Jo Kukathas

Nominated for: The House of Bernarda Alba (Wild Rice)

Previous nominations: Best Director for Cooling Off Day (Wild Rice, 2011),

Previous wins: Best Actress for Occupation (Checkpoint Theatre, 2012)

Despite being one out of a large ensemble cast of 30 women, Jo Kukathas was content to play housemaid to actresses such as Claire Wong and Margaret Chan in The House Of Bernarda Alba. The play, directed by Glen Goei and staged by Wild Rice, is based on Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca's tale of a household of cloistered women repressed by an authoritarian matriarch.

Kukathas, 52, says: "It's an ensemble piece and I don't think anyone sets out to shine. Rather, you try to figure out your role, what part your character plays in the playwright and director's vision."

In fact, the actresses grew so close they would throw birthday parties backstage and gorge on cake, she says.

"I enjoyed the camaraderie with Sharda Harrison, who played Bianca, the other 'downstairs' person. We would remain in character backstage - sitting and shaking our heads together over the unfolding tragedy," she recounts.

Despite Kukathas' efforts to blend in, critics who reviewed the play highlighted her as a standout - no surprise for someone who clinched the awards' Best Actress title in 2013. Life! theatre reviewer and awards judge Corrie Tan was particularly impressed by how she could "transform from sweet confidante to slippery, manipulative foe at the turn of a heel".

In the months ahead, she will be directing the production Another Country with Ivan Heng (they were nominated for directing the play Cooling Off Day in 2011). She will also star in Hotel, a play directed by him and Glen Goei.

The director and dramaturg in Kukathas meant she also enjoyed the researching Lorca's work and writings about it and "connecting his text to the context of Singapore".

"Poncia is a rewarding character to play," she says. "She's the clown character in wayang, wise and foolish, earthy and enduring… she's a survivor, just like all of us."

Elizabeth Lazan

Nominated for: Fat Pig (Pangdemonium)

Previous nominations: None

Previous wins: None

Blessed with a sun-kissed complexion, high-set cheekbones and a pair of gently curved bow-shaped lips, Elizabeth Lazan is every bit the mixed-heritage belle (her father is Chinese and her mother is Italian-English).

So it comes as a surprise when the 31-year-old admits to some difficulty in playing Jeannie, the svelte but shrill stunner of an ex-girlfriend in Pangdemonium's dark comedy Fat Pig, a turn that has scored her her first Best Supporting Actress nomination at this year's awards.

The Business Times' theatre reviewer and awards judge Helmi Yusof praised her excellence in the role for playing "the perfect skinny witch".

"I didn't want to play her as this plain obsessive, mean ex-girlfriend. I had to find the heart of this person and why she behaves in this erratic way. Some nights, I was tossing between slapping and hugging Jeannie," the Los Angeles-based Singaporean actress tells Life! in an e-mail interview.

"In a phrase, Jeannie is lost in her own reality of what her life didn't turn out to be," she says, summing up her character.

But she still found the experience of acting in Fat Pig a "wonderful" one, thanks to the "good instincts" of her director Tracie Pang, who is in the running for Best Director.

Lazan, who has also done stints on television besides her stage work, will appear in local director Kelvin Tong's horror feature The Faith Of Anna Waters later this year, taking on a small supporting role.

She says: "I try and work in theatre and film as much as possible because they both fulfil my artistic endeavours and I start to crave one or the other after a while. They operate at different paces, but the end result is the same, to find the truthful moments with each role."