The Telegraph
Saturday , September 24 , 2011
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The growing traffic should bring greater exposure to artwork from countries that have remained unfairly peripheral to our eyes. But it hasn’t, because of the worldwide fascination with Europe and the US. For instance, how much do we know or care about Nigeria — which, with the largest population in Africa, surely deserves some attention? Even those among us who have read Achebe or Soyinka have little to add to those names from a generation ago. So it came as a huge breeze of fresh air to see Maya Krishna Rao (picture) of Vismayah, Delhi, dramatize for the Park Festival a relatively new short story by a Nigerian woman only in her thirties, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has won awards lately.

Rao has performed in Calcutta before, but Quality Street was her best by far. The intercultural tale, about a Nigerian mother preparing for the marriage of her daughter who has returned from an American university with a Kenyan boyfriend, had spectators glued to their seats by its surprisingly Indian scenario. The same kind of traditional values and rituals, modern social lifestyle, suspicion of attitudes imbibed abroad, and utterly chaotic wedding arrangements made it resonate with human appeal in our sceptical climate that frowns on universalism. At the same time, Rao rooted her solo act in cultural specifics down to a fantastic Nigerian accent, colonial manners and credibly African carriage. She put her Kathakali training to contemporary use, from rolling eyes to stomping feet, while her standup comic skills emerged as she waded into the audience during a shopping jaunt. We could have lapped up more, but she finished rather abruptly. And Samar Grewal’s live music often drowned her voice.

The American Center got into the act with Success, by Theatre MXT from Milwaukee, perhaps the first time that a foreign company auditioned and rehearsed an Indian actor over Skype and took her on board. Success underlined American theatre’s dissenting note about the nation’s capitalistic dream — by presenting an ad executive whose campaign helped elect the president and who receives an invitation to do the same for an influential woman candidate in Egypt. However, he has problems with his own wife and friend. Where should his priorities lie? Although the questions remain unresolved, one could argue that the conclusion skirts a more radical stand, preferring to leave things safely unsaid.

Some viewers felt unimpressed by the acting. They do not understand that American stage realism is very muted, natural to the point of ordinary (that’s the point of naturalism, isn’t it?), whereas other brands of realism (including ours) invariably exaggerate for effect. The author, John Kishline, himself in the lead role, expressed his inner conflicts through just small gestures of his hands and minor facial twitches. The director, Edward Morgan, justifiably did more grandstanding as his upset friend. More conventionally, Deborah Clifton played a sophisticated Egyptian lady and Kriti Pant (from Delhi) a go-getting young employee.

Avant-garde performance must constantly reinvent itself to stay avant-garde. Kleopatra: The Dead Don't Bite, by Aarshi and Naturaleza Humana (Berlin/New York), proved this truism. The Anglo-Canadian director, Charlotte Braithwaite, educated at the Yale School of Drama, the most prestigious such institution in the US, and the actress, Abanti Chakraborty, did not achieve anything particularly unusual in content or style. How womankind, deprived of power for millennia, handles it when it reaches the hands of a few, from Cleopatra to Indira Gandhi to Mother Teresa to Hillary Clinton — we’ve heard it all before. The fragmentation of episodes created impressionism but lacked in-depth comprehension. The one novel and mesmerizing experience was the video interview of a little girl who works as a maid in Calcutta — uneducated, happy despite adversity, so spontaneous that the rest looked dreadfully forced.

Technically, we’ve seen cameras projecting live feed of magnified closeups of actors and objects on stage previously. We’ve seen shredded footage that repeats itself endlessly. We’ve heard soundscapes looped ad infinitum. Thus, the film design by Heiko Kalmbach from Germany and the music by Tareke Ortiz from Mexico didn’t exactly excite. As for Sanchayan Ghosh’s elusive set, one wonders if he visualized it, but only the red-lit frame and flowers for Kali in the finale made a striking picture, of Shakti embodied in a red-light zone.

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