Playing a saint after various villainous roles pushes Nikki Palikat to reach deeper into herself to bring her character to life. Ask her how she prepares for the role of Mother Mary Euphrasia, foundress of the Good Shepherd Sisters, and the animated singer is likely to reply with a snatch of song.
“It’s tough. You cannot just come in as a good person because Euphrasia was so much more than that. She was a visionary and an improver of systems. She took what other people were doing [during her time] and brought them together to increase the efficiency. That’s what makes her story so compelling. I had to dig deep into her biography to understand her struggles and inner conflicts and why she did the things she did.”
Euphrasia — The Musical, composed by Mia Palencia, focuses on the firebrand Roman Catholic nun born Rose Virginie Pelletier (1796-1868), who reached out to orphans, single mothers, prostitutes and those on the margins of society after the French revolution. Jointly produced by the Good Shepherd Sisters and Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac), directed by Dominic Lucien Luk, and co-scripted by Cheah UiHua and Terence Toh, the show will be staged in KL, Ipoh and Kota Kinabalu between April 26 and May 11 by a 60-strong cast and crew, including a live orchestra.
Euphrasia’s refusal to bow down to authority resonates with Nikki, who knows about facing opposition. “Like her, the pursuit of my art was not easy — I had to run away to sing,” says the Sabahan whose family considers education a top priority and was nudging her towards medicine. But at the age of 18, after completing her matriculation course, she left home to take part in season one of Malaysian Idol in 2004, and made it to the finals.
A recording contract from Artistes United Records confirmed she was on the right track and she released a debut album, Maharani, in 2005, followed by another, Hawa, three years later. In the decade since, the mother of a nine-year-old boy has sung at home and abroad, performed on TV and taken part in theatrical productions such as Shout! The Mod Musical, Cabaret and Into the Woods.
Nikki sees Euphrasia as a “meant-to-be” role because she connects with the moment the nun had an epiphany of her destiny. “There is a scene in the musical when she walks into a refuge and sees all these girls who were broken or had been exploited and she realises ...” — here, Nikki bursts into song — “ that ‘This is where I am supposed to be’. I believe many people can relate to that aha moment in their life, when they just know, this is it.”
Another scene shows Euphrasia gathering people to build an underground tunnel so the nuns could go back and forth from the abbey to refuges, and help those in need. “They didn’t have the technology or the manpower. She just knocked on doors and recruited whoever she could find. People said yes because her zeal and enthusiasm were so infectious, they just wanted to get on the journey with her. She was always writing letters [asking]to open new refuges. In the end, she had them all over France and beyond the country.”
There are similarities between the character and actress, who says this is her most physically and spiritually demanding role so far. Playing a saint lifts her to a new level altogether because “you have to get into that frame of mind, that selflessness.
“People have this idea of saints having a halo around their head and always being in a state of prayer. Euphrasia was very human and had a lot of self-doubt. She was always asking herself, in the way we all do, ‘Is this the right thing [to do]?’ What I loved most was something she wrote as a child: ‘I was often unhappy, I often cried but then I would turn to prayer’,” Nikki explains.
A staunch Roman Catholic herself, she turns to prayer and religious books for guidance on how to fill Euphrasia’s big shoes and stay true to the unconventional character. “A lot of times, she did things because of her love for God and that is something very easy for me to understand. Once it is here ...” — Nikki pauses, with one hand over her heart — “everything just comes out naturally. It has helped me deliver the lines and I don’t have to worry so much or second-guess myself in terms of [whether I’m doing] too much or too little.”
During the two hours on stage, she transforms from a 17-year-old on the brink of devoting her life to God, to Euphrasia on her deathbed, still worrying about opening a refuge for the underprivileged in Sri Lanka. “You can imagine the pain and turmoil she felt, knowing there was nothing left she could do. That needs to come across.” Nikki feels the onus to “do justice” to such moments but says it is the kind of pressure she loves.
Having to sing in almost all the 28 songs is demanding, let alone move from scenes that take Euphrasia — declared a saint on May 2, 1940, by Pope Pius XII — from convent grounds to the offices of those in authority and the many refuges she built for the rescued women and, finally, to when she breathed her last.
With not much written material on Euphrasia to go by, Nikki has had to do her own research, on living the cloistered life, for one, and how the old behave. The aged nun is an amalgamation of a friend’s mother and her own, strong women who inspire her. “The whole act of ageing takes a toll on you physically and the voice also changes,” she says.
Referring to a biography that claims Euphrasia was quite the prankster as a child before blossoming into someone known for being gracious and unruffled, she adds: “I often ask myself: Is this what she would do? I use a lot of common sense about what a woman like her would have been like and tried to balance that with what would be palatable for the audience and serve the story the most.”
Rehearsals began in mid-March for her and have been an opportunity for the cast to discover more about their characters, and tighten certain scenes or expand on others as befits a script that has never been staged before. Working with fellow SabahansPalencia, Nikki’s senior and fellow choir member in St Francis Convent, Kota Kinabalu —“we were stuck in the piano room backstage like every afternoon because we just loved singing” — and Luk, whom she knew of, make this project all the more fun.
What caps it for Nikki is knowing that, finally, family and friends can watch her perform. “People have always asked me, ‘When will there be a show in KK?’ So yes, it will be a homecoming of sorts.”
But, more important than playing before kith and kin is knowing she is ready to bring Euphrasia to life on stage. “When I play her, I hope the spirit of what she planned and dreamt and carried out comes across to the audience. As an actor, you know how when you start doing things, they just feel right. Things are feeling very right for me, in terms of my motivations, and where my voice is coming from when I sing the songs,” she says.
Catch Euphrasia — The Musical at klpac on April 26 and 27 (8.30pm) and 28 (3pm) by calling 016-205 3548 for tickets; at Auditorium RTM Perak in Ipoh on May 3 and 4 (8pm, call 012-508 8818); and Auditorium JKKN Sabah, Kota Kinabalu on May 10 and 11 (7.30pm, call 012-232 8207). For enquiries, email [email protected] or visit facebook.com/euphrasiathemusical.
The article first appeared on Apr 22, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.