Bahuswar’s invitation to Ruchika from Delhi to showcase their work at an exclusive festival heralds progress among Bengali groups to grant equal status to theatre in English, usually sidelined. We discovered to our surprise that Ruchika had never come to Kolkata despite activities under Feisal Alkazi’s direction for forty-plus years.
Their two older productions bore circumstantial and thematic similarities, both composed during the 1980s by American dramatists born in the 1950s who later made a name, though still unknown here. Both are professors of theatre at reputed American universities. And in both plays, the leading lady dies at the start, but returns on a ghostly visitation to her home.
Of Japanese-American parentage, Velina Hasu Houston put the life of her mother (and other Japanese “war brides” in the US whom she interviewed) into her first big success, Tea, a trailblazing text of Asian-American theatre. Four Japanese wives of former US servicemen gather to pay respect to the soul of a member of their community who committed suicide. Over their traditional cups of tea, they exchange their experiences – of contempt, racism, alienation, loneliness and holding on to their Japanese identity – while the spirit of their friend floats in and out.
I felt the direction slipped between two styles, crystallizing neither. It seemed ripe for a symbolic staging signalled by the bamboo walls (unlikely in Kansas), the ritual sharing of tea by the women mostly in kimonos, and the unsettled ghost’s presence so typical of Noh drama. However, the actresses performed realistically, yet inconsistently expressed Japanese/American mannerisms and accents, puncturing the illusion of reality. Cues were fumbled too, more often than acceptable.
On the other hand, the Indianization of Donald Margulies’s underrated What’s Wrong with This Picture? into Goodbye, Forever! found its cast on much surer footing as a Catholic family in Mumbai, mourning the premature death of the wife/mother who had choked on her food. Margulies’s script exudes warmth, its sorrow and humour of “letting go” captured wonderfully by the men: dementia-affected father-in-law (Yogesh Verma), mad-with-grief husband (Sanjiv Desai) and especially the apparently unmoved son (Armaan Alkazi).
Seeing the same company in consecutive shows sets up a test of their histrionic versatility. The only ones onstage on both these days, the two senior actresses, suffered compared to the others. Radhika Alkazi could not separate and distinguish the potentially stylized, tormented protagonist in Tea and the reportedly vivacious heroine in Goodbye, Forever! Her raised, outstretched arms formed a repetitive posture for both. Nandini Sra looked too young as her mother-in-law in the latter, even allowing for dyed hair.
In his director’s note, Feisal Alkazi mentioned the recent death of his mother, Roshen (incidentally, one of the early poets published by Kolkata’s own Writers Workshop). Sadly, his uncle Alyque Padamsee passed away on the day of Tea. In all the obituaries I read paying tribute to Padamsee, nobody pointed out his true contribution to Indian theatre: that he encouraged indigenous drama in English, directing original plays by Partap Sharma, Gurcharan Das and Mahesh Dattani at a time when such writers received nary a glance. Perhaps Ruchika can consider continuing his lead.
(From The Times of India, 23 November 2018)