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LISTEN TO WHAT THE VOICES SAY

Monologues have many uses and do not imply monotony, two points proved by a variety of them that entertained us recently. Interestingly, the majority dealt with gender issues, but received widely divergent treatments.

The American Center hosted Ben Atherton-Zeman, an activist who has adopted the form of the one-man (or should we say one-person) show to prevent violence against women. Comprising equal parts of information, theatre and motivation, Voices of Men succeeds in propagating its message and inspiring men to act against such violence. In front of seamlessly-integrated video projections displaying factual bytes and fictionalized scenes of domestic abuse, Zeman impersonated three film icons to exemplify common instances of male oppression. It certainly opened my eyes that the film classic, Rocky, contained a protracted sequence of how a man should never behave with a woman on a first date: Zeman played the clip, onto which he had superimposed captions in two columns, one tallying each time Adrian said “No”, and the other each time Rocky asked or pressured her to say yes. Then Zeman entered in Italian Stallion robe (picture) and Stallone’s deep drawl, discussing where he had gone wrong. Sean Connery as James Bond in bow tie followed, counselling his nephew in rehab for assault, and Austin Powers in his flowery togs talked on sexist objectification, both demonstrating Zeman’s perfect imitation of accents, though one wondered whether he had more contemporary impressions handy for present times. He encored with muppet ventriloquism of Kermit and Elmo singing about the stereotyped toys for boys and girls. Right through, his interaction with viewers made it a dialogue.

Sujoy Prosad Chatterjee’s Monologues festival became an annual event this year, featuring two star Hindi actresses doing diametrically opposed texts. Usha Ganguli premiered Rangakarmee’s Rozana, expanding Waking Up, that gem from Female Parts by Dario Fo and Franca Rame, into a one-hour production. It discovers a working mother startled awake to prepare for another day at the factory, getting her baby ready for the creche, then forgetting where she placed her doorkey — all while the husband sleeps — and virtually panicking, before suddenly realizing it’s a Sunday. Ganguli adds topical local touches to the original, but can afford to exaggerate slapstick in the commedia dell’arte manner that Fo and Rame applied to convey their trenchant satire. She could also calibrate her heavy voice to more comic registers: shriller for farce, and sweeter for the brief memories of a romantic holiday. Some routines evoke instant laughter, like her confusing the flour with powder, and her commentary on men’s obsession with football.

Disappointingly, Mita Vasisht’s rendition of Nirmal Verma’s Weekend, from the collection, Tin Ekant, looked anti-theatrical in contrast. Verma soliloquized an ordinary woman’s weekend affairs with a married man , expressing her complete lack of empowerment in allowing the exploitation to continue, until the very end when she appears to take a stance. But despite her theatre training, Vasisht merely narrates, turning into a sob story neither uplifting nor ironical, which even she seemed unconvinced by in her introduction. Then why did she attempt it? She also misjudged the distance from the audience, probably thinking that understated cinematic acting would work. It could have only if she had enacted it in the round or arena-style, achieving an intimacy with the spectators on all sides. In fact I had suggested such an arrangement for the festival last year, to no avail.

Bengali theatre contributes a more difficult endeavour to the genre: a full-length monodrama rather than just monologue, by one of its biggest box-office draws, Debshankar Haldar. He creates the eponymous Kallumama, written and directed by Ishita Mukhopadhyay for her group, Ushnik. She composes the biography of an underprivileged suburban man who by force of circumstances becomes an antisocial, a petty criminal, and eventually a hardened underworld don, the whole play developing in flashback from a prelude that depicts his fate now. A kind of Bengali Breaking Bad — obviously occupying much less time — Kallumama showcases Haldar’s talents at their best, with ample scope for his gradual transformation. Mukhopadhyay gives him periodic relief by getting a few supernumeraries onstage to represent his friends, henchmen and cronies, but Haldar does all the talking and reliving of his life for us.