The problem is as to how one may assess an absurd play? The genre itself shrouds ‘technical flaw’, ‘plot inconstancy’, ‘lapses in character’ etc etc — whatever grounds on which a non-absurd play may be — and are — evaluated.
While all this is so, Kanchuka Dharmasiri has revived her Thatta Gayikava: her adaptation of Eugene Ionesco’s La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano). This, I am told, first came out around 2002, and the current version unfolds us a whole new line up and a play reassessed in itself.
Thatta Gayikava hit the stage of Kandy’s Hindu Cultural over the weekend. First and foremost, the crowd and the turnout kind of disappointed me. The Hindu Cultural being a neutral and easily accessible venue and following the fairly sustained publicity that was given to the play on the run up, it only goes to show how lethargic Kandy’s audiences have become of literary endeavours of this nature. I witnessed this lack of zest when Dhanuka Bandara staged his The Commode several months ago as well.
However, there was a slightly better crowd for Bara Avi — a slapstick which I happened to be at — at my fellow Marlon Amaresh’s bidding — in between The Commode and Thatta Gayikava. Perhaps, the inductive conclusion is that slapstick works better with our audience than the absurd — nothing absurd in that.
As I hinted at the outset, I am quite unable to form a critique of the play in question. How to question an absurdist play? Yet, however absurd as it may sound, several observations arrested my judgment. One is to do with the length and the “stage time” of the improvisation. I felt that the improvisation here could have been more intact — for the “absurd”, to take optimal effect, has also to be compact and tight woven. As a follow up to Thatta Gayikava I took some time off reading some sections of The Bald Soprano. My convictions were reassured as I found some scenes in the staging in question — specially towards the end — being, perhaps, overdrawn to my liking.
I happened to chance on one of Kanchuka’s cast members who told me that one end of their improvisations was to tire the audience out: to exhaust their waiting for a culmination of a sort. This may be. I do not dispute it there. But, I felt that the overdrawn sequences made the tail end loose on the compactness of the play as a whole, in any case. For instance, the penultimate sequence where the Fire extinguisher joins the party was a bit of a drag.
Another question that came to my mind while watching the thing was as to what we can do to make the “absurdist play” new and fresh? Is the “absurd”, in that sense, a cliche and a “had been”: where the same set of dramatic possibilities and devices are repeatedly dished out and flogged at? Kanchuka’s being the second play of this genre I have witnessed this year — The Commode being the other — I couldn’t but help notice how some stock features in improvisation, stale and long overused as they may be, still hold ground. One such instance is where the characters start making a chaotic din shouting out in binaries. Also, where they tear up paper and throw it around making things aggressive and — so to speak — messy: these ploys have exhausted their potential over and over.
What I have pointed out above even Dr. Johnson would lay out. Perhaps, I need some more time to digest the performance fully. But, even then, I feel that the very genre prevents me from saying anything more than this; for it is a genre based on a logic that welcomes little judgment and crtical intervention.
On the other hand, I felt that Thatta Gayikava was memorable for the strength of its cast. The Mr & Mrs Perera (the Smiths in the original) and the Silvas (the Martins) fused in well, in a splendid performance. The Maid (Mary) gave Marlon Amaresh in the audience a few anxious seconds, but I felt that she was not well casted. The actor who played Mary was “too strong” to my liking — and she did not entirely “meet” the rest — in tone, tempo, gesture etc –: if you see what I mean.
Whether the Maid’s mammoth stature, as opposed to the relatively diminutive proportions of the Pereras and Silvas is an “absurd” element, or an issue of mis-casting is one of those indisputable points. Her not synchronizing with the rest (in her “theatrics”) — is it the “absurd”, or an inconsistency of improvisation? Yet, another of those indisputable premises; and every time you come across such a doubt, you end up hitting a wall.
The play concludes with Kanchuka coming on stage and shooing off the players. This, for a moment, reminded me of Chathura Jayathilake’s Aacharasheelee Dhadayamak: his 2000 adaptation of Woody Allen’s The Death. It sounds absurd to be reminded of Chathura at the conclusion of a Kanchuka Dharmasiri play. Was it because the gifted Chathura was never heard of on stage, since? It would surely be to the benefit of experimental theatre if Kanchuka, unlike Chathura, does not fade away with Gayikawa, but continues the rock. She has shown both the temperament and the commitment that is needed for a 3G art; and we are optimistic that she will work within and without herself, making the best of it.