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Solo plays and two-handers are impressive feats on the actors’ part

In Seema Pahwa’s solo act, ‘Saag Meat’, she prepares the mutton dish and serves it to the audience.

In Seema Pahwa’s solo act, ‘Saag Meat’, she prepares the mutton dish and serves it to the audience.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement


Like solo performances, the actors have to do a lot of heavy lifting in two-handers, and their chemistry is critical

In the last week of November, the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai organised a three-day festival to mark its 50th anniversary. The place transformed into a bustling community centre with a hectic schedule of cultural activities. I swung by to finally catch Yuki Ellias’ much-talked-about one-woman show, Elephant in the Room. This show, a quirky retelling of the adventures of young Ganesha, has been a runaway success, bagging a few Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, and having had successful tours in Australia, Edinburgh, and Hong Kong. Ellias’s performance, where she plays many characters with different voices and body language, is quite a feat, and she goes through the 60 minutes tirelessly.

The play made me think of other one-actor shows I had watched. I have always been in awe of the confidence and stamina of actors who take on such shows. I’ve never produced or directed a solo performance. We have done a series of monologues, but I’m referring to full-length solo pieces.

One of the earliest I saw was The Final Rehearsal, during one of our Thespo years. Pawan Kumar, now an acclaimed Kannada film director, acted and directed. He deservedly won best actor. Ali Fazal, currently shooting with Gal Gadot for a Kenneth Branagh film adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, once did a riveting show of Scaramouche Jones, about an ageing clown. It was a work in progress, but an inspiring performance nevertheless. Other Indian productions I can recall being rather impressed by include Nine Parts of Desire, performed by Ira Dubey, Shakkar ke Paanch Daane, a tour de force by Kumud Mishra, C Sharp C Blunt, performed by singer-actress M.D. Pallavi, and of course Einstein, performed rather fittingly by Naseeruddin Shah. Seema Pahwa does an interesting solo performance called Saag Meat, during which she prepares the mutton dish of the title, and serves it to the audience in the end. Some of these performances tend to get very physical, like most of Jyoti Dogra’s much-acclaimed one-woman shows, since the actor has nothing but himself or herself to keep the audience engaged. It is a tough performance.

Globally, a series on Amazon Prime called Fleabag has become quite a phenomenon. What is interesting is that it started off as a one-woman show with the same title, written and performed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who is now quite a household name.

Double acts

Another play I finally caught was a two-hander. Mosambi Narangi, based on Stones in His Pockets by Marie Jones, performed by Ajeet Singh Palawat and Rajit Kapur. 120 minutes of two actors playing multiple characters with energy levels staying way up there. I caught the actors between two shows, and they were visibly and justifiably exhausted.

We have had quite a few prominent two-handers. Dear Liar, performed by Ratna Pathak Shah and Naseeruddin Shah, which chronicles letters written by George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell to each other over a span of 40 years. Love Letters, featuring Shernaz Patel and Rajit Kapur; and Tumhaari Amrita, featuring Shabana Azmi and the late Farooq Sheikh, also dealt with the exchange of letters, and had hugely successful runs. A Marathi play, White Lily and Night Rider, a love story set in chatrooms, also made some serious waves. One of my favourites remains Abhishek Majumdar’s Gasha, featuring Adhir Bhat and Sandeep Shikhar, which told a poignant tale of Kashmir.

The two-hander is quite popular across the world. Most budding theatre people attempt The Zoo Story by Edward Albee. Indian theatre groups have always been fascinated with plays like Educating Rita and Same Time Next Year. We have had recent productions of Constellations, Guards at the Taj, and Venus in Fur. Naseeruddin Shah and Rajit Kapur also starred in a very topical adaptation of A Walk in the Woods, in which two diplomats of countries with stressful relations develop a less stressful personal relationship.

Like solo performances, the actors have to do a lot of heavy lifting, and their chemistry is critical. We have attempted a few two-handers of our own. A Guy Thing (originally The Dirty Talk) by Michael Puzzo did very well. With two heartthrobs in it, Ali Fazal and Neil Bhoopalam, it is a hilarious play about the complexities of being a man. We also attempted Blackbird, a dark play about paedophilia, with Akash Khurana and Shernaz Patel, and Tuesdays With Morrie, again with Khurana playing the ailing professor. Both plays had an additional female cameo, but featured two actors for the most part.

Personally, I prefer a few more people in the rehearsal room. Camaraderie comes with crowds. But that’s the director (and foodie) in me speaking. The producer in me would love solo performances. Can there be a play more cost-effective and travel-friendly than that?

The theatre producer and director is often broke. To cope, he writes and directs films and web series and occasionally acts, albeit reluctantly.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 12:40:47 PM |

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