City audiences are certainly in for a treat this weekend, as the remarkable international production Hotel Paradiso , from the Berlin-based group, Familie Flöz, touches down on Mumbai shores for a run of four shows, after regaling audiences in Delhi and Bengaluru. The group has performed in 34 countries across the world, and this is their first full-fledged tour of India, although one of their signature pieces, Ristorante Immortale , was staged at Chennai in 2007, as part of the Hindu MetroPlus Festival. This tour has been made possible by AGP World, whose founder, Ashvin Gidwani, caught the show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2015, and thought that the universal trappings of a non-verbal observational comedy would go down pretty well back home. The play is performed by actors wearing specialised masks which, quite disarmingly, end up conveying the complete gamut of human emotion.
Hotel Paradiso can be described as an existential comedy set in a mountain lodge of uncertain heritage, run by a cantankerous dowager and her family. A moderately appointed hotel foyer is the setting for the quotidian affairs that lend themselves quite spectacularly to comedic set-pieces. “An earlier version focused on all the possible guests who could come to the hotel,” says producer Gianni Bettucci. “Later we felt, a whole world of physical possibilities would open up if we included the people who worked in that space,” he adds. Enter the cook, a scullery maid, a reception manager, and their endless foibles.
The masks have been created by the company’s Halo Schüler and Thomas Rascher and are inspired by drawings, people on the street, popular stereotypes, and character notes. “You never know what will happen with a mask when you finish it,” says Bettucci. “Sometimes we take the mask and the actor performs with it and they don’t merge,” adds Nicolas Witte, an actor and author on the show. Ultimately, it is what an audience perceives that creates the magic of the mask, as they project the emotions they experience on the actors.
With each new show, new masks arrive, and the group now have more than a hundred, each with their own distinct qualities. Bettucci recounts the amusing story of the mask of Pippino, created for the show, Teatro Delusio , and edited out at the last minute, “Since then he is always trying to get back into a show, waiting for the right part,” he shares.
The actors certainly have a special relationship with the masks. Matteo Fantoni says, “It is a feeling of serving the mask. When you put it on, you look at yourself, and the character appears through you and the mask.”
Daniel Matheus draws an interesting parallel with the art of puppetry. “We can’t play the masks, they play us,” he says, “They pull the strings to make the emotions appear in the body which is a marionette.” In their latest play, Haydi , the eponymous character of a young refugee girl from Turkey is a puppet manned by three actors. “In the end, the puppet becomes human when an actor walks into it,” says Witte.
Familie Flöz’s plays present a smorgasbord of such beautifully complex images. “We want to transmit emotions to the audience, who can then interpret it as they like,” says Bettucci who, despite not being a performer himself, has a keen understanding of the group’s working, having been with it since 2000. “Our society is full of sounds and words. Yet, there is our body language, which expresses itself before we speak. In our work, we explore the moments between when an idea arrives and the body reacts,” he says.
And yet, verbal expressions, so masterfully excised from the final performance, do have a place in the proceedings. Matheus explains, “We are all whispering under the masks, because otherwise the movements would be flat. The more complex the text in your head the more intricate the gestures.” A phase of the rehearsals includes improvised speaking that articulates the emotions actors are trying to get across. The results are certainly mind-boggling. The characters evoke wistfulness and languor, incredulity and impatience, deep longing and soulful sorrow. A tilt of the head, a sideways stare, or a steadfast look, all convey volumes. The physical delineation is also particularly astounding. Age, gender, class background, privilege, are all faithfully delivered by the team of adroit actors who appear to have keenly observed the human condition. Fantoni says, “Although, it is not very different to acting without masks, wearing it helps me focus on my body.”
The play has been directed by Michael Vogel. “He is like the person on the outside watching us create the show. He gives us suggestions, brings it together,” says Witte.
True to its name, the unit is like a family on the floors, “We spend a lot of time together and it’s not hierarchical at all. There is always a consensus and everyone takes responsibility for collective decisions,” says Bettucci. Because their characters are so archetypal, and the emotions so universal, Familie Flöz’s international outings have been received fairly uniformly, with audiences everywhere reacting to moments of mirth quite similarly.
Applause, though, has been marked by cultural distinctions. In Budapest, they were intimidated by the rhythmic martial clapping. “In Italy, they scream. In Finland, they don’t do anything at all,” says Matheus. In India, they found the audience would only applaud after the actors took off their masks. “They don’t want to disturb the show. We have a curtain-call planned with us still in masks, even an extra scene, but we have to take them off much sooner to signal that the show is finished,” says Witte.
As a parting note, Bettucci, himself an Italian working in Berlin, explains why their plays have such Italian-sounding names, “Well, the atmosphere that you breathe in our shows does have a taste of Italy, if you like. Not this play though. Hotel Paradiso is completely Swiss.” Let’s hope that all these nuances and more are on offer in the Mumbai shows.
Hotel Paradisoperforms on November 4, 5 and 6 at St Andrew’s Auditorium, Bandra. See bookmyshow.com for timings and ticket details
The writer is a playwright and stage critic
Hotel Paradiso can be described as an existential comedy set in a mountain lodge of uncertain heritage.