"Lilies" and "The Stronger" at Ranga Shankara

Yesterday and today, theatregoers at Ranga Shankara are fortunate to see two excellent plays– one, an amalgam of three playlets, Fawn Lilies, Water Lilies, and Black Lilies, written and directed by Gowri Ramnarayan, and staged by JustUs Repertory, and late in the evening, at 9.30pm, a very short play by August Strindberg, which was acted as a monologue by Claire Denieul (There, Aru, I think I have the spelling right!)

The 3-play series (for want of a better word) strings together three very different incidents, happening in the US; first, two people meeting in a park in Columbus, Ohio; second, two people meeting in an exhibition of Monet, at Houston,Texas; and the third, two people meeting in an airport lounge in Dulles airport in Washington.

In the first of the triptych, a dietician from Vijayawada has just been passed over by her boyfriend, who prefers war to love. She comes to the park to do some birdwatching, and gets talking to an unusual and interesting vagabond, who, in his own words, “lived in a tree for six months or so” when he was “down to his last quarter” and found himself espousing green causes.

In the second, an investment banker who is scornful of Monet’s paintings is intrigued by a Sri Lankan woman’s fascination with the painter, and they segue through a conversation about topics which start with art and meander afar.

The third piece has a young school teacher from Tamil Nadu on her first trip abroad for a conference, getting into a conversation with Hungarian novelist who isa Nobel laureate ..and showing him perspectives that he has not thought of before.

In all these encounters,the essential honesty of each person’s interaction is one of the striking things about the dialogue. Each person expresses his or her own thoughts articulately, and is sensitive and receptive to the othe person’s point of view. The audience can see the first two in the process of becoming friends, the second two giving each other new thoughts, and the third, having a direct and open conversation that would not normally be possible..what are the odds of a young schoolteacher,who recites Sanskrit slokas to overcome the fear of lightning and thunder, meeting a Hungarian Nobel Laureate? There are three different public spaces, which bring about these chance encounters.

JustUs repertory is…well…a repertory of very talented actors. Gowri has mastered the difficult art of natural, unforced dialogue, and the cast cooperated fully in its proper delivery.

Simple props were used, and the stage design was very well done too. Lighting and sound were well executed, and we certainly got the feeling of a huge thunderstorm.

This time, unlike after her last play, “Flame of the Forest” (also staged some time ago in Ranga Shankara, Gowri introduced the cast and crew. But I still feel it would have been better if she had come down to the stage to do so, rather than doing it from the top of the audience space, where several of us could not see her properly!

And I would request JustUs to always have a brochure of the play given out to the audience. Many people like to mull over what they have seen, and match faces to names the next day, and might even get in touch if they are given an email id or website which they can visit/email.

Also, the mobile number that was given out during the advertisements in the newspapers and in the Ranga Shankara newsletter, never once was switched on when I tried over 4 days to talk to them. Nor did I receive any reply to my email to their email id, where I had corresponded with Gowri earlier. Buck up, JustUs…you need to be careful on the issues of engaging with the public!

It says a lot for the play, “The Stronger”, that was staged as the third in the series of the “Other Voices” initiative, that it nearly drove the 3.30pm show from my mind, and I had to struggle to recollect the details of the plays that I had liked so much in the afternoon!

I had been for the short play, enacted by Revathi, too, but had missed the second one in the series, so when I got a call from Ranga Shankara at 9pm, I left my surprised husband to have a solitary dinner and rushed off immediately! And it was worth the effort.

“The Stronger” was written by August Strindberg in 1890; it illustrates the great truth that there are topics which are universal and timeless. Amelia has a friend who betrays her, and then comes to meet her and talks (while Amelia remains silent throughout) and in the process, faces things about herself.

The play, said Arundhati Nag in the discussion that followed the staging (it took half an hour, but it was so intense that it seemed longer than that), has been staged all over the world; it was written by the Swedish playwright for his actress wife. The playwright is known for his difficult, dark plays, including “The Dream Play”, “Miss Juliet”, and others. This time, it was done as a monologue, with Amelia’s “Judas” friend being physically on stage, and Amelia herself being a Godot…being a presence while being an absence. All 20 of us in the audience felt that this was a more powerful rendition than having two people on stage, but Claire also revealed that it was more difficult when she could not get cues or signals from another actor being in front of her. Her performance, as she moved through a gamut of emotions…being patronizing, affectionate, jealous and self-hating in turns, was very intense, and the intimacy of the small audience space made it even more so.

Here, too, the lighting and the props were simple, but Claire as Amelia’s friend,made excellent use of each property…a pair of sandals and a pair of the husband’s slippers were donned and doffed to great effect, the toys and the orange roses that she brought along told their own tales, and even the matinee jacket that she put on and took off seemed to symbolize the various social stances she was donning or shedding.

Claire’s mobile face reflected the emotions the character she played; happiness, superciliousness, self-abnegation, her acknowledgement of Amelia’s greater strength (I was afraid of you when I met you…I didn’t want to make an enemy of you, so I made friends with you, she says)….all these were there for us to see. Truly a remarkable performance.

I forgot to ask, though, if this translation was by Claire herself, or by someone else. And I do have a nit to pick…Claire’s French accent did make some of the words unintelligible, and I had to keep guessing. I even assumed that the original play had been in French, and that the accent was part of the play, when it was not!

“Other Voices” is an initiative to bring delicate pieces of the dramatic art to a smaller audience, and it’s a great one. But there are some logistical problems that still dog it. For one, transportation from Ranga Shankara (after the play and the ensuing discussion) is non-existent, so attendance pre-supposed an audience that will have come in their cars. Supper theatre is yet to take off in Bangalore, and I somehow wonder if, as petrol is set to cost probably the highest in the world, whether people who are not from South Bangalore will ever be able to benefit from this great idea.

And again, if one has (like I did) attended a 3.30pm play that day, would one be able to come back at 9pm? And particularly so if tickets to the 9.30pm are only being sold at 9pm, I don’t think people will be able to wait or to go and come back at that time. I would still suggest that for the 9.30pm show, tickets be sold at the usual times on a first-come-first-served basis, rather than make people come half an hour earlier once again to the venue.

Aru did clearly mention the email id and website of Ranga Shankara at the end, but perhaps it might be better to have it displayed as well somewhere in the small room that serves as the “Other Voices” theatre space.

But I must thank Gayatri (and Aru!) of Ranga Shankara for inviting me at the last possible minute, and allowing me to participate for the second time in what I think is a very good, path-breaking theatre form. I hope we see more plays in “Other Voices”, too! I think that Ranga Shankara is one of the main reasons why I would not want to move from within walking distance of it!

Show timings for “Lilies” are 3.30pm and 7.30pm today, and the timing for “The Stronger” is 9.30pm in the Other Voices space at the top of the Ranga Shankara building. Prices for both plays are Rs.100, though the newspaper/ newsletter ad had mentioned the latter as Rs.50. Ranga Shankara can be contacted at 2659 2777. The mobile number given in the ads by JustUS repertory does not work, nor do they reply to emails,alas.

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