Surrender to the stage

A look at 2016’s greatest performances in theatre

Updated - January 07, 2017 07:51 am IST

Published - January 07, 2017 12:59 am IST

As actors live and die on the stage, posterity is not something that they are overtly concerned about. It’s the lure of the arc lights, no matter how fleeting, that provides them with the gumption and spirit to perform. Looking back at a whole year of theatre often involves a careful selection of memories that are short-lived by nature. Stage performances are rarely found on celluloid, but they do etch themselves quite indelibly into the hearts and minds of those who experience them firsthand. Here are some incandescent performances from the past year.

Chirag Vohra, Gandhi — The Musical

Amidst the shambles that was Danish Khambata’s Gandhi-The Musical , Chirag Vohra stood tall as a paragon. His soft wavering tones coupled with a resolute demeanour gave us a Gandhi whose allure doesn’t seem to have dimmed. In the play, the Dandi march is powerfully invoked by a spirited walk through the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre’s aisles, where Vohra rubbed shoulders with the masses (the audience). The actor’s verisimilitude is never more compelling than in the scene following Kasturba’s death. This was a vulnerable Gandhi with reserves of soul, not a pop-culture version that one might expect in a tasselled musical. It all but rescued the production.

Lalit Khatana, Queen-Size

Mandeep Raikhy’s Queen-size comes packaged with the politics of protest, yet dancer Lalit Khatana, quietly sitting in a corner, immediately draws us into a universe of lingering intimacy. The language of the piece is carnal as he and his co-performer Parinay Mehra evoke the bedside manners of gay men as contortionist lovers. But Khatana’s visage is a subtle emotional landscape, and coupled with Mehra’s aesthetic impassiveness — and thus relative anonymity — it conspires to place personal stories of love and longing into the weave of an already impressive dance-piece. The gentle Khatana grants us the access required to watch what is a series of private encounters entirely sans the voyeur’s gaze.

Melanie Schmidli, Hotel Paradiso

Familie Flöz’s entertaining Hotel Paradiso is presented by four exceptional performers, who take on several characters each. However, Melanie Schmidli’s scullery maid is able to capture and retain the breathtaking melancholia that is a feature of even such a rib-tickling affair. She does wear a mask that appears to hold all emotions, but it’s her body that twirls around with an unmistakable gait and gives it character. In one scene, having given up all the items she has stolen, she finds a trinket that hasn’t yet been apprehended. Her dance of rapture is a show-stopping piece of theatre that appears to speak for all the underlings in the world.

Neha Singh, Ishq Aaha

The women in the production play musical chairs in Ishq Aaha, taking on each others’ parts. The interchangeability is one of the small ironies in a play whose patriarchal gaze is never truly obliterated. Singh takes on roles that were originally created by the radiant Mansi Multani, bringing in traces of outrage and an awareness of oppression that sometimes passes women by. As an aunt in a parochial household, whose niece is in a liaison with an outsider, Singh’s acquiescence is laced with compassion for a young woman’s hopes and desires. As a city woman who is being stalked by a man, Singh is conflicted between her native desires and her emancipated self, which the script attempts to parody. But Singh resists the caricaturisation gamely.

Pardeep Singh Cheema, Toye

In a striking ensemble assembled by director Jyoti Dogra, Pardeep Singh Cheema stands out, both as an unfulfilled spirit trapped in an interminable limbo, and as an enlightened man, Yavikri. As the latter, Cheema betrays an all-too-human frailty when he stakes a proprietary claim on a married woman’s body. The actor emotes with his body as much as speech, and in one stunning pas de deux after another, he interacts corporeally with his co-actors, embracing a physicality that is effortless and natural and an eroticism full of desire and yearning. Pique and pity, pride and self-loathing, all effectively coalesce in one body.

Prasad Cherkady, Akshayambara

Sharanya Ramprakash’s compelling play is replete with human dilemmas, and Prasad Cherkady’s is a particularly double-edged presence. A female impersonator in the all-male world of professional yakshagana, the actor engagingly brings alive the feminine persona on stage. And yet his continued presence in the form is clearly patriarchal. He is resistant to a woman’s entry into the troupe, but when she (Ramprakash) decides to take on the part of a man, it results in an intriguing role-reversal. Cherkady delivers all these layers with aplomb in a performance that is much more than simply assuming feminine tics. He ensures that the underlying conflicts and ironies always bubble to the surface.

Rajeevan Vellur, Khasakkinte Ithihasam

Deepan Sivaraman takes certain liberties with the O.V. Vijayan novel in his spectacular stage adaptation. The narrator, Ravi, is marginalised, while the wastrel, Nizam Ali, played by Rajeevan Vellur, takes centre-stage. In Vellur’s performance, we find an embodiment of all the elemental rhythms that wash across the stage-scape. He is run aground into the wet earth, and cleansed by the camphor of puritanism. When he assumes the self-appointed mantle of the successor of a Muslim saint, he must undergo a trial by fire. Vellur brings a raw uninhibitedness to his part, and a simplicity of faith that serves to provide a dehumanising play, its emotional core.

Rajashree Sawant Wad, Tichya Aaichi Goshta, Arthat Mazya Athavanincha Phad

Rajashree Sawant Wad’s performance has been compared to the routines of actual lavani dancers, but these comparisons are unwarranted. She is preoccupied with not just getting a display of resplendent coquetry down pat, but with unearthing the woman behind the ‘shringaar’. In that, Sawant Wad delivers a consummate performance, unerring in dialect and deportment that is an effective and touching chronicle of a life lived and lost on the anvil of unfettered performance. Sawant Wad balances heartbreak with optimism. And in her spirited lavani set-pieces, it must be said that she has quite faithfully delivered the form, even if it still remains a facsimile turn.

Ratnabali Bhattacharjee , The Gentlemen’s Club

In a play populated with drag kings who appear to be running an unlikely but thriving underground club culture, Ratnabali Bhattacharjee is Mr 55, a narcissistic performer whose schtick includes just one song — Chuck Berry’s ‘My Ding-a-Ling’. Each aspect of her performance comes with its own caveats and disclaimers. We don’t know whether to take her hysterical appropriation of toxic masculinity seriously or not; or whether her stated Marxist politics can really be taken at face value. Yet, it is such a thrilling evocation of the contradictions rife in such a militantly gendered persona, that Bhattacharjee almost touches upon a radicalism all of her own. Disclaimer: This writer was a collaborator on this project.

Srishti Shrivastava, Chuhal

Manav Kaul’s new play Chuhal begins with strains of melancholia, but it takes only a spot of tuneless singing by Srishti Shrivastava to suffuse it with the tender warmth of a kitchen fire. Her Nimmi is a homespun persona kitted out in outsize knitwear, lacking the agency to escape her small-town trappings. But Shrivastava supplies her with a piquant brand of uninterrupted whimsy that makes her an effective foil to leading lady, Sugandha Garg’s self-possessed but still homebound existence. Shrivastava makes an impact with relatively little stage time. And in never embracing the bleakness of the ennui that seems to be the prescribed lot of women, she becomes a beacon of hope.

Shubhrajyoti Barat, Naqqash

As the eccentric knife-maker Aklu in Naqqash, Shubhrajyoti Barat is not an archetypal fence-sitter in Asad Hussain’s layered if overwritten production. He isn’t driven by tact or cowardice, but by a dogged refusal to buy into the partisan politics of his village even if his own son has been sacrificed to an alien cause. Yet he is, perhaps not innocently, complicit in the chain of events that ignites the firestorm that drives him to near psychosis. Barat unearths these contradictions and convictions with a rare virtuosity, if giving in to affectation occasionally. There is also the irony of being a piece’s de facto narrator, and Barat sinks his teeth into that omniscience with relish.

Vivaan Shah, Riding Madly Off in All Directions

In a play directed by his father, and appearing alongside his entire family, Vivaan Shah appears to be palming off a cheap imitation of greatness. His mien is that of an imperfect entertainer — a budding impresario trying to perfect a party trick, or a woefully inadequate conjuror. Yet, what Shah achieves is truly sublime, and he displays a flourish that is as much physical as it is verbal. He appears to delivers his lines after a swig and a gargle, swirling and savouring each word before sputtering out a worthy anecdote, while still speaking in his own voice, rather than a trained tongue. It is a revelatory performance.

The writer is a playwright and stage critic

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