Title: Rural Phantasy
Genre: Socio-political Satire
Author: Kalki Krishnamurthy
Adapted & Scripted: Gowri Ramnarayan
Language: English (original Tamil)
Venue: Museum Theatre, Chennai
Dates: 10 - 12 March 2006
Produced by The Madras Players in collaboration with Just Us Repertory
"I know that when I set about writing a comedy the idea presents itself to me first as a tragedy... If the characters were not qualified for tragedy there would be no comedy... (FRY, Christopher - "Comedy." Drama Review, 4,3 (Mar.1960): p. 78)
Set alongside this a statement by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the Swiss-German playwright, "comedy is like a mouse trap." It traps the audience into laughing and as they laugh, nudges them into listening and before they realise, they are actually laughing at themselves.
There are two ways of looking at Rural Phantasy. As a play and as a production. It all depends on whether one wants to look at the text or the context. On the surface, after the first reading, yours faithfully shared the view with several others that it has a paper-thin plot and was very episodic and fragmented with patriotism and Bharatiyaar for fervid excuse. The characters were caricatures with perhaps the endocorp more meaty than the epicorp. This was a play within a play within a play.
There is the author of the original short story trying to tell us a tale of a village. Then there is the Narrator-Man telling it to the audience at the performative level. And then there is the Narrator-Woman along with the man telling us the current predicament of theatre in Chennai. Somewhere down the line, at the production level, the script also morphs into a post-modern self-reflexive meta-theatre wherein the Narrator-Woman also steps into the screen to become the "Pudhumai Pen" (The New/Neo/Neuve/Revolutionary Woman - not Picasso's but Bharatiyaar's) that she talks about in her prelexia (if they call the end Dyslexia, why not call the intro Prelexia. I hear you G. Why or how can they make fun of Dyslexia in the epilogue. But if we want to feel abrasive we have the right to. Only, it was not a medical or "challenged" dig. It further highlights our ineptitude and socail malaise in a very post-colonial, post-structural, post-modern world. So excuse the irreverence). And further to add to it, Bala who played the Narrator-Man also becomes minor roles in the course of the play within the play within the play's events. But those were roles that Andrea and Bala were originally cast for. What really made this Phantasy fantastically meta-theatre was what Bala did on Saturday afternoon show!
The costume changing was so tight before the first Ranganatham scene that guys who had gone for Bande Mataram dance were still dhoti-ing themselves in the scene... I was alone in the company of a topless Gandhi, courtesy The Hindu, 125th Anniversary issue sporting 1940s look. Shankar Sundaram was blissfully sleeping on stage. So Bala had to continue with ad-lib lines to occupy stage time because I cannot talk until I had co-actors to talk to. He ad-libbed and hung on as no one had managed to come on stage... and joined me. Moments like these go to make the genre of 'survivor tales'. From Sanjaya in Mahabharatha to Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, 'survivor tales' of self-reflexive fiction would tell you that the narrator is invariably the one who had to go through a certain apocalypse and the ignominy of having to be present at the site of an event but could not participate or was marginal and hence subaltern as well... and survives to tell the tale. But these are the delighful characters that make up history worth listening to. Which is the core content of my post here.
Someone said in the comment to the previous post: "take away the music, the dance and the physical comedy, and what is left?" I aver. There would be nothing left as a story TO TELL; but give me also leave to disagree. The story is not about dance or music or physical comedy. It is all about the struggles our patriotic leaders of the past and freedom-fighters of colonial Bharat had gone through to get us where we are. Therein lies the strength as well as the weakness of the script. As "Kanayazhiyin Kanavu", as written by Kalki, it works. Well, now it works only as a good story. At the time it was written and perhaps for until a decade later it worked to inspire. But now... it just doesn't. Because we have too much freedom and democracy!
The fate of Gowri's "Rural Phantasy" is the same as Evam's "Evam Indrajit". Again... it doesn't question the efficacy or cast aspersion on the palpability of Kanayazhi or Indrajit. Like Jennie Malone (sorry to bring in Neil Simon in an Indian context, especially when at the beginning of "Rural Phantasy" the Woman says she's bored of english theatre from Shakespeare to Neil Simon. but then we are dealing with the same actress no? So, coincidences galore! Also we are discussing Rural Phantasy in comparison with Evam Indrajit vis-a-vis the fate of the production. So... so much more!)! Anyway, like Jennie Malone tells Leo in Chapter Two, "May be the timing was wrong!" Yes... YEs...
YES! The timing. Sure Thing. It's all in the timing, as David Ives says! A story such as Rural Phantasy does not relate to the youth following theatre today, as much as they could not relate to Evam Indrajit. The opening night was a rave. Of course we had three encore curtain call Namastes on the second night because we had the audience giving standing ovation in three waves... in three instalments... but still, IMHO, the opening night audience was the best in terms of response; simply because they were audience from the Kalki era. From the pre-independence era. You get the point? The mortality rate in Chennai is still high. Yes, it was an aged-audience and again IMHO they have turned up to listen to Carnatic music, get nostalgic about Kanayazhiyin Kanavu and see some good dancing of the traditional variety (which unfortunately was made shitty by a certain fly - yours faithfully! If you don't believe me, ask the cast around about my struggles with the Bilahari Swarajathi.) Cutting digressions, the play works only with people who can relate to the content of the story within the play. Like Gowri said during the curtain call on Saturday night, the cast knows nothing about Freedom struggle. C'mon... besides Shankar Sundaram, I was the oldest member of the cast and am just stuck with my mid-life blues! Our lighting manager who flashed the Indian tri-colour flag on the white cyclorama was not even born when I had completed my Bachelor's. So you can imagine our ignorance. Under such a condition how do you expect the quintessence of the script to percolate through the cast. And if you don't understand the script, how could you relate to it? Even if you understood, it would only be surface understanding, not felt experience. Also, we are dealing with a whole lot of cast and crew who are in it for the experience of doing theatre. I dare challenge anyone with total abrasion and armed with cannon-ball when I say this. Besides perhaps Bala pick me one member in my co-cast who has a theatrical ideology and does theatre out of a certain political belief?
All theatre - am making a sweeping gesture here - would continue to remain nicely put together piece of aesthetic junk if art is not practised out of conviction to communicate something. Even if the creator believes in his/her conviction, the ensemble must feel the same, else only artifacts. No artifice. No conceit. No art. No Theatre. Which explains why I am getting so many messages, posts and calls about the lack of depth in the performance (and I strictly mean the performance), when the euphoria has died down.
CLAIMANTS WHO DARE CHALLENGE ME RAISE YOUR HANDS AND WE'LL SETTLE THE ISSUE ANY WHICH WAY YOU LIKE!
So, to cut the long explanation short in response to EyeFry's statement that if you take away the music, the dance....blah blah, let me say, unfortunately what came through this production was only the music dance and physical caricature which you were tongue in cheek enough to qualify as comedy because the hall was resounding with echoing laughter. The play has a finer humour that never came out, unfortunately. IMHO it is a brilliant script. May be I prefer DARK HORSE for its tautness, but THIS IS A FINE SCRIPT. The priorities sadly on the production front were different. The accent was on the musical-ness of its genre than on the discourse about the freedom struggle, patriotism, independence and our political heritage. And despite the director's repeated attempts to inculcate us with Kalki's politics, we sadly could not rise above the basic muck of dishing out few aaahs and oohs and ahhhhaahahahas to the audience who paid 100 bucks to buy a piece of heritage.
This is a trend am getting scared about in Chennai Theatre right now. We have a generation of actors who either produce Call Center Theatre or another set of people who package nostalgia in the form of Heritage Theatre. At least, Heritage teaches us some inspiring moments, but Call Centers are threatening to make the Jayathirths into Jays, Srivatsans to Steves, Mariammas to Mary-Anns etc etc. We are getting evangelised to commodities of KFC culture. We need to go beyond the threshold of nicety and do a lot more 'in yer face' theatre to wake up an audience that is fast becoming addicted to I don't want to say what! Theatre should not be nice or packaged. It is an art that aims to edify through entertainment. We need to be hyper-critical and moon on each other if theatre here needs to satisfy beyond a few kicks. All right, let's now go empty our bladder. It's been a long 2 hours sans intermission :-))