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A Tamil Stage Review from San Francisco Bay

— By viRanmindan, ForumHub.com

The San Francisco Bay area offers a great opportunity to creative artists looking for an intelligent, educated audience willing to support them. Unfortunately, the stage plays that are performed in this area are recycled imports from Tamilnadu or lousy imitations of the plays by S. V. Shekar, Y. G. Mahendran, Cho and their ilk.

So, when the Naatak troupe ( http://naatak.com/naatak_theater/index-nbait.html ), famed for bringing serious Hindi theater to the Bay Area, decided to stage a Tamil play, Kalavaram ( http://naatak.com/naatak_theater/kalavaram/index.html ) the expectations were high. The buzz was on for a while about this play, what with professional auditions and involvment of serious, dedicated theater enthusiasts. Thus it was not surprising to see that the play was sold out on Saturday and nearly filled the 250 seat Palo Alto Cubberly Theater on Sunday. It is also very encouraging to other artists thinking of staging serious theater in the Bay Area.

The show started and ended almost on time and the production values were impressive for an amateur troupe. The background music added to the play and communicated the mood brilliantly. Stage managment was flawless. It was amazing to learn that among the backstage crew, women far outnumbered men. It is too bad that that was not the case for the on stage characters.

Kalavaram is based on a modern Hindi play “Muavaze” first staged by National School of Drama in 1992. Being unfamiliar with this Hindi play, the reviewer is unable to compare how closely the translation remains true to the original. Kalavaram was translated well enough that I couldn’t guess at its origins. Kalavaram is intended to be a satire about an impending riot. It is supposed to be an attempt to capture the machinations of various segments of a Tamil city facing a riot. It attempts to be humorous and caustic at the same time. How well did it succeed?

Well, since the crowd stayed put until the end of each show, it is obvious that the audience was interested. It is fairly difficult to hold the attention of the Bay area audiences for themes that are distant. On top of that caustic political satire is a theme that has already been pushed to its venomous limits by Cho. That the audience was still captivated speaks volumes of the talent and skills of the amateur artistes that put on this show.

Nevertheless, it was quite disappointing to see yet another two-dimensional portrayal of Tamil politicians, its bureaucracy and the disparate segments of Tamil society. Though the play was meant to portray a “generic” Tamil politician, portraits resembling the DMK leader M. Karunanidhi and expressions such as “arumai udan pirappE” clearly targeted the DMK. It is not obvious if it was done to project authenticity or merely a reflection of the translator’s biases.

Though the crew tried gamely, they were constrained by the flat characterizations of the author or the translator. There were just a few chances for projecting the essential humanity of the characters and some actors pushed them as far as they can go. The story of Maari who consents to sacrificing his life so that his “family” and a “wife” of convenience Saanthi can benefit by getting a state compensation was one such opportunity. Alex Arulananthu and Kumudha managed to project the pathos of the situation well enough.

Mani Sundaram and Srikanth Anandal were convincing in their roles as Panneer/Ragupathy and Gajapathy/Muthu. Govindaraj Haridass was disappointing as both Amaichar and Yogi. The Yogi character’s failure is the most damaging since it is through Yogi the author strings the disaparate scenes together and it is through him that we gain an insight into the mindset of the characters. But the failing had more to do with the way the character itself was written.

The play’s repeated mention of Hindu vs Muslim at times was perhaps a remnant of the Babri Masjid references in the Hindi play. But since it led to nowhere in the Tamil adaptation, it only ended up confusing the issues. The play’s failing had more to with its bourgeois mindset than the talent of the cast and crew. Mr. Umasankar, who adapted this play in Tamil should have known better. His son, director Mahesh Umasankar however did a great job in bringing this crew to shape and extract a professional performance out of them. There is hope that this crew can tackle much more serious, relevant and sensitive subjects in the future. We wish them luck.

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