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Energy was missing

"Division Street" ... a classic re-visited. — Pic. by K. V. Srinvasan

THE BOARDWALKERS have stood the test and evolved with the times. Chennai will remember them for their choice of scripts, which are always both funny and issue-based, thus offering food for thought. The latest from them is "Division Street," which went on the boards at the Museum Theatre this past week.

Michael Muthu first directed the play for the Loyola Theatre Society last year. It ran to packed audiences and was a huge success. He reopened the play as part of the package from the Boardwalkers Theatre Foundation for the year 2004-2005, retaining most of the original cast. "Division Street" goes back to the 1960s when Studs Terkel wrote his classic oral history about the ordinary people of Chicago, who made the city what it was. He named the book "Division Street," after one of the major streets in the city. Steve Tesich, a Yugoslavian immigrant who settled in Chicago and wrote the screenplay for "The World According to Garp" and went on to win the Oscar for "Cider House Rules" picked up on Terkel and named his play "Division Street."

The play is about a 1960s radical who moves to Chicago to start life as an insurance agent but keeps having encounters with people from his past. The play looks at the extraordinariness of ordinary people and how interlinked their lives turn out to be in spite of amazing diversity and differences. Michael Muthu has adapted the script to the Chennai milieu with a clear focus on humour. Krish (Praveen) who comes to Chennai to start over as a journalist is photographed by the local press while retching on the street after eating stuffed mutton ball curry at the New Bangla Grill and Bar, owned by Mohamed Yohan (Sundar), an immigrant from a `neighbouring' country. Yohan demands, at gunpoint, an `appleogy' from Krish for having given his eating place a bad name. That sets off a trail of events that resurrects Krish's past.

The play is peopled by just about every kind: the old, the young, those from the North, from the South, immigrants, heterosexuals, homosexuals, the psychologically disturbed, even those who have transformed their identity with sex change operations — a whole multi-ethnic, multi-cultural exotica. The energy that carries the plot of Tesich's play is that of the 1960s movement, the coming of age of the post-war youth and the groundswell of freedom and rights. Muthu, in his script, has substituted that with a youth movement from our own history — he has had a colourful list to choose from.

The success of a play such as this depends on an energy-charged the performance or on the audience that can charge it with their responses. Both factors were missing in the re-run of the play. The theatre was barely half-full and the audience present held back the guffaws. Consequently, the pace fell and affected the moves, which were choreographed for swift responses. Despite the drawbacks, some of the cast put in impressive performances.

Positive aspects

Shakila as the old landlady, always in a mood for "the hanky and panky" turned in a consistent performance throughout, unaffected by the way things — right or wrong — went on around her. Praveen's Krish was relaxed and comfortable and promised much potential. Another part remarkably done was Sundar's Mohamed Yohan. It was an act full of soul and well delineated. The lack of modulation in his voice, however, went against his performance. Much of the humour generated by trans-lingual leaps of imagination was also lost. Michael Muthu as the cross-dressed cop, Champa Kuppuswamy, was quite delightful and lent much character to the part.

With the exception of Shakila and Muthu, actors lacked voice modulation. They were either weak or inaudible (especially the two women) or had expended all their energy shouting and screaming, effectively drowning chunks of script. Music, sound effects and sets were well designed. The play opened to a mildly jazzed up "Suprabatham" and the delightful sounds of a city as dawn cracks over it. The sets stood out for the perspective it created, while showing the interiors and layout of an apartment block.

Chennai is fast becoming a teeming hive of for theatre activity and this seems to be the season of for re-runs. While they are it is cost-effective for the producers and gives an opportunity for those who wish the audience to catch up with what they had missed, one needs to ponder over why re-runs in Chennai don't sell as well and why performance energies run low.


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