The stage at the Alliance Francaise of Madras, Chennai. The audience waits for the play “When Things Fall Apart” to begin. On the dark stage characters first appear as silhouettes. The sound of the drum gathers volume as lights brighten to showcase the first scene of a play based on a story from the Mahabharata.
JustUs, the Chennai based multi-genre group blends literature, music and theatre to create a play in English, which delves into the psychological depths of characters from an Indian epic. The repertory, which has staged its work in several cities in India and abroad celebrated crossing 10 years with a two day theatre festival. This was the play staged on day one.
It is a challenge for the director to ensure that every actor in an ensemble play of 4 characters (sic, there were 3) etches his own character excellently well, without outshining co-actors. Gowri Ramnarayan, the director who heads the repertory, has succeeded (in this task).
The actor lives through the role of the infuriated Ashwatthama when he trounces his father to his mother saying, “My father did not teach me what he taught Arjuna”; when he wrangles with his father; and finally when he breaks down before his mother, realizing that his father had indeed loved him. and had died believing in the fake news of his son’s death.
We forget that a woman (Akhila) is playing this role, so convincing was the body language, expression of feelings, and commanding masculine voice. Just stunning.
“Are you human at all? Are you a brahmana, a teacher, you who did not condemn your disciples when they disrobed Draupadi in open court?” Sunandha Raghunathan poured such fire into her portrayal as Kripi that her glances and manner were enough to convince the audience that she is right. Not only Drona, but we the audience, get spooked when the enraged Kripi starts disrobing herself with “Isn’t this how you wanted to see Draupadi?” The director’s deep maturity is evident in the visualization of a scene like this without the least loss of dignity.
A play is enlivened by lighting and music. Recognizing that lighting and music bring life to theatre, this group has given them their due. Night or day or dawn time, and locations of cottage or forest, are established through lighting changes against the dark backdrop of black cloth. Young Charles of Chennai Art Theatre was responsible for the lighting design, and ensured that actors were lit up only at need, and to the required extent. His craft skill as also his understanding of the play’s scenes are laudable.
The second was a play set in contemporary times, about Arun Kolatkar, who began as a painter and became a poet. He has many works in Marathi and English. A icon for today’s youngsters.
This awards-winning poet enjoys solitude. A Tamil journalist meets him at his haunt, a restaurant in Bombay’s Kala Ghoda area.
The newspaper obituary read aloud at the start makes the audience aware that this is a story about a poet who lived and died in our times. Sharp dialogues, clear enunciation, simple but effective story telling methods, were all enjoyable.
No background instrumental music, (Savita Narasimhan) sings in a sweet voice and perfect sruti according to the needs of the scenes. One of the scenes had only straight musical notes ( sa..ma… pa). The same singer brilliantly renders abhang, Carnatic, Hindustani and western music. Without her songs the play would have become bare as dialogues.
Though this company produces English plays, it was a matter of joy that it felicitated Tamil playwrights Na Muthuswamy and Indira Parthasarathy, gifting them cartoon drawings as mementos. Since Indira Parthaarathy could not come to the venue, a video recording of him being felicitated in his home was screened before the show.
Just fest turned out to be not “just” a festival, but the “best” festival."
Ramanan, Kalki Magazine, 9 July 2017