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Rationalism vs mysticism

The Madras Players are back with Chetan Shah's ``Lizard Waltz''. A review by ELIZABETH ROY.

LIZARD WALTZ, Chetan Shah's new play, directed by Bhagirathi Narayanan for the Madras Players, opened at the Museum Theatre this pastweek. The play marks the decade of the brain and operates at several levels. Underlying them is the basic notion that while human beings have evolved considerably the basic ways in which they react and act seem to have been hard-wired into their minds based on evolutionary (or survival) requirements. The issue is, can you really overcome these basic or primal instincts.

The play sets the core idea in our contemporary racy times. Oberoi (Russel Stevenage), into his midlife and heading a TV network, indulges in a passionate affair with Mini (Priya Madhusudan), the vibrant young chat-show hostess, also the ex- wife of Dhiren (P. C. Ramakrishna) who is designing a show that brings the spirit of scientific rationalism to bear on people's emotional problems. Oberoi's wife Radha (Kaveri Lalchand) draws strength from the Swamiji (T.T. Srinath) to deal with her husband's infidelity. Her brother Param (Asim Sharma) a Technical Engineer in the studio is single-mindedly pursuing Shubra (Anuradha Menon) in the primal act of propagation. The plot shows the kinds of pain that people are suffering and inflicting on each other because they let their primal instincts drive them, whether it is sex or anger or lack of accountability.

As an overlay to this is the debate between Dhiren the scientist who believes that everything can be thought through and reasoned and the Swamiji who talks about catching a glimpse of reality in a more intuitive, spiritual sense. Chetan Shah gave the best part of the debate as an ``outsider perspective'', which Bhagirathi Narayanan brought to the audience through a series of video clips/ footage.

``The issues in the play on one level'', says Chetan Shah, ``is rationalism versus mysticism. Mysticism for me is an accepting way. Questioning cultural institutions and mystical world views is a very necessary process. As Dhiren says, we take things apart in order to repair them... At the macro-level, the play deals with our understanding of ourselves.''

The play held well. The plot was interesting, something no one would bat an eyelid at because the shock value was minimal. In that sense it was a reality. The production was technically close to perfect. The director held the different components in perfect balance.

It was satisfying to see a cast of seasoned actors approaching a complex play with sophistication. The cast plotted the graph with great clarity and delineation. The points and counterpoints - Ramakrishna as the central point and Sharma and Srinath as the counterpoints. Madhusudan against Lalchand, to support Shah's ideas on pair-bonding, that men are attracted to young healthy breeders rather than to women past childbearing. Anuradha Menon as a plaything and victim of superstition. Russel Stevenage, the average ``goof-off'', blundering through life. Their body language was so right. The three actors who added energy through their body language, stood out empowered - Kaveri Lalchand, Asim Sharma and P. C. Ramakrishna in the pivotal role.

Particularly impressive was the director's portrayal of raw sex without any crudity, in fact with great finesse. Questions will be asked, if there should have been sex in the play. If theatre is an honest reflection of reality, it will be there, especially if it is discussing evolutionary biology. Productions like these will perhaps help man move into a higher orbit.

Devanesan's sets and light design were stunning and worked a metamorphosis on the old theatre.

He deserves praise most for the single reason that with a ton of steel and seven hundred and fifty square feet of stage he managed to understate and give Lizard Waltz its space. With blue and orange steel pipes, 16 TV sets and new age furniture the state was a complete studio.

The choice of costumes, particularly the shades that blended into the sets and the music (Mohan Narayanan and Anil Srinivasan), which stated the theme and yet stayed behind the play, contributed to the dignity of the production. Asma Menon's lizard, that stretched across the entire backdrop, was an arresting piece of art.

If the play did have a problem it was perhaps the heavy verbiage, especially the Outsider Perspective, the narrative that came on the TV, the kind of stuff, which if read would have people under normal circumstances flipping back and re-read. In an audio- visual mode it may have been difficult for several of us to hold and grasp the totality. In answer Shah said, ``These ideas are very abstract and difficult. I didn't have any illusions that the play would communicate them completely''.

A collection of Shah's essays on the subject, to be published as a foreword to his play, may help.

``The science of evolution explains how we got here, how we are the way we are. Culture we have no control over, but learning we can control. So learning is the way we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to escape the dangerous, regressive forces of nature, nurture and culture.'' With thoughts like that from Chetan Shah, the play will hopefully generate discussion - about things often taken for granted, about altruism and primal instincts and the possibility of sublimation.

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