A Fine Balance;
Young and Hungry 2015

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_afinebalanceBased on the novel by Rohinton Mistry
Adapted by Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith
Directed by Ahi Karunaharan
Presented by Prayas Theatre | TAPAC, Auckland | Oct 8-18

Not being familiar with the novel, I was surprised by the clarity of this stage adaptation, both easy to follow and requiring little background knowledge. Originally staged by Tamasha Theatre Company, A Fine Balance is an accessible history lesson that never feels didactic, a vivid snapshot of India during 1975 under emergency rule. A play that shows us how politics, at heart, is all about the people.

Taking centre stage in the story is Dina (Leela Patel), a business woman who hires Ishvar (Mustaq Missouri) and Om (Prateek Vadgaonkar) to make dresses for her. And there’s also Maneck (Mayen Mehta), an aspiring student in air-conditioning who she lives with. Each one represents the will to live in times of crisis, dealing with survival in their own unique way. But more than just symbols, they are fleshed out human beings. The heart of the play rests with these core characters and the performers breathe real humanity into them. Rishab Kapoor as the Beggar Master also deserves special mention as a hilariously charming ruffian.

That’s not to discredit any of the work by the rest of the ensemble, though. Everyone brings a necessary and felt presence to the stage, no matter the size of their roles. Occasionally there are moments the dialogue gets lost due to some of the thick accents, but it never mars any understanding of what is happening. This is landscape storytelling comparable to the films of Pasolini or Fellini with its wild assortment of characters.

The staging, while in the Brechtian epic theatre mode, never distances us from the characters or the story. The stage is kept mostly bare, except for a gigantic hanging portrait of Indira Gandhi in the background and some sewing machines to the side. Live musicians are also a tangible part of the entire experience, festive and moody when necessary. A reminder of theatre as ritual and celebration.

Director Ahi Karunaharan does great job rallying his cast together to deliver a uniform and consistent world. The moments he truly shines, though, are when we get a taste of unrestrained theatricality, mostly used to express unimaginable cruelties, through puppetry and silhouettes.

Despite the backdrop of the play being profoundly distressing, the story and the characters refuse to wallow in bathos. This is probably the defining feature of the show, displaying the strength of the human spirit.

While the pacing of the play does suffer from feeling too leisurely in the first act, and conversely rushed in the second act, it’s impossible not to be sucked into the world of the story. Because of the economic realities of theatre, it’s a rare treat to see so many actors on stage for one show. And the significance of this particular story is that it’s one we wouldn’t otherwise see on our stages if not for Prayas, not to mention putting the scope of most theatre in Auckland to shame.

The best thing audiences can do to support such ambitious storytelling is to continue filling seats. This is a theatrical experience not to be missed.

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img_21stnarcissist“The 21st Narcissus” by Sam Brooks; Directed by Anapela Polataivao
“The Presentation of Findings from My Scientific Survey of the First 7500 Days of My Life Done In the Interest of Showing You How to Live Better Lives” by Uther Dean; Directed by Nisha Madhan
Young and Hungry: Auckland Season
Basement Theatre, Auckland | October 10-24

First up is Sam Brooks’s The 21st Narcissus, a collage of social media spilled out on stage, and an incredibly accurate one at that. There’s a gaggle of girls tweeting away on Twitter; a lonely modern-day narcissus on Tumblr; and two teenagers who accidentally connect over Facebook.

While there is little dramatic tension in any of the storylines, the play utilises the chemistry between the performers and embracing the changing worlds of the play to keep things moving along. With Twitter we are flooded with bite-size punchlines delivered with manic energy. The Facebook romance gives us a relationship to invest in, despite the low stakes. And Tumblr gives us a distortion of a classical Greek myth refracted through cyberspace.

The performances of Geordie Holibar, Jacob Pitcher, and Kelly Taylor in the main roles also prevent the show from turning into nothing more than a pop culture parody. Holibar is particularly tragic as a Classics geek who is consumed by the attention of online strangers. On the flipside, the rest of the cast embrace caricature and parody wholeheartedly, but also consistently within the world of the play, with the guidance of director Anapela Polataivao.

As a writer, Brooks’s strength is best in accurately portraying the nuances of how people interact with each other. Though his ear for naturalistic dialogue doesn’t get to shine as brightly here, the interactions between Holibar and his followers, or between Pitcher and Taylor, have a surprising amount of subtlety, capturing true-to-life banality. The use of spoken Internet acronyms does get a bit repetitive, though, especially in the wake of similar plays such as Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography.

The set is utilised as a shared cyberspace for the separate worlds and storylines. There are three swings which the Twitter girls sit on, but the main feature is the large white cyclorama where images are projected onto, resulting in some of the best laughs, and behind which the remainder of the Twitter chorus are situated.

As a play for Young and Hungry, it feels specifically crafted for its target audience: young, pop-culture savvy users of social media. Those entering the show looking for a wholly universal experience might feel confused and potentially alienated though.

More an approximation of the social media experience than a critical examination of it, The 21st Narcissus at its best shows us the positives and negatives of social media, that it can leave us feeling simultaneously alienated and interconnected all at once. While it never probes the subject matter as deeply as it could, it’s an easy show to let wash over you because of the cast’s infectious energy. And, like the Internet, it’s filled with stuff that might go over your head, but trying to keep up is part of the experience.

img_thefirst750Whereas Brooks’s play was littered with likable characters, Uther Dean’s The First 7500 Days of My Life gives the audience a central protagonist with traditionally unlikable features in a theatrical presentation (rather than a traditional play).

Sharing the cyclorama from The 21st Narcissus as a backdrop for projection, 7500 Days utilises a slanted stage, with an audio mixing desk and keyboard to the side for live music. It’s a quirky looking set that eschews naturalism without resorting to fantasy, while also containing a lot of wonderful surprises for the audience throughout the show.

Max, the primary force driving the show, wears her misanthropy and narcissism like armour. This so-called presentation is all about her life and what we can learn from it, her distaste for her friends and family a particularly prominent detail.

As Max, Saraid Cameron has the necessarily commanding presence. She’s forthright, blunt and unafraid of crushing people’s feelings. But she’s also clearly not without feeling. Yes, she’s cold and, at times, scientifically exact, but it’s also apparent that every action and line hides something deeper. This is a delicate balancing act for any actor, but Cameron is more than up to the task, giving the standout performance of the evening. Whether she’s bemoaning late-era capitalism or referencing Doctor Who, she is always compelling doing it.

She’s also accompanied by Ravi Gurunathan, Anthony Crum, Arlo Gibson, Doug Grant, and Andrew Gunn, playing various friends or family. While their characters are never fully fleshed out, they manage to bring a lot of fun to their respective roles, their personalities clashing nicely with Max.

Rather than merely do a straightforward presentation, the show finds a narrative and dramatic arc through the conflict that arises between Max and the friends and family assisting her. And this is where the play began to lose me.

The latter half devolves into a sudden barrage of secrets and resentments which risks turning everything into a soap opera. While it manages to find its footing before the end, it’s not without a few of bumps in the road. Director Nisha Madhan expertly stages the messiness of the show so it all seems organic, and milks the script for all the laughs it can get, and yet the emotional beats of the play don’t all fall into place.

But my frustrations with the latter half of 7500 Days of My Life are mostly due to the fact I enjoyed the first half so much, and found the character of Max so unique within any storytelling medium. Here we have an unapologetically geeky—but not dorky—queer female, who is understandably closed-off and afraid of the world and her place in it. That it feels like the entire show is designed to teach her a moral lesson about her ignorance seems like a misguided attempt at buying into false sentimentality. And it’s also here where the characterisation of Max softens too much for me.

But, despite having these personal issues with the ending of the play, I still loved it. It’s theatrically refreshing, thoroughly entertaining, and mostly avoids clichés. And, like the best theatre, it sticks in your head long after it’s over. While it’s a more tonally inconsistent play than The 21st Narcissus, the highs are also a lot higher, filled with greater urgency and personal stakes.

This is my third year experiencing Young and Hungry’s Auckland season, and it’s as good as ever. It’s a reminder and showcase of the talent in our local theatre community both on stage and behind the scenes. An invaluable annual event that will hopefully be around for a long time.

Full Disclosure: Sam Brooks and Uther Dean are former theatre contributors to The Lumière Reader.