By Joel Benjamin
Legendary theatre director, Ariane Mnouchkine, famous for her imaginatively crafted, large-scale creations has brought her Théâtre du Soleil to the sumptuous Park Avenue Armory for a limited run of her new work, A Room in India.
A Room in India, as is usual with Mnouchkine’s epic tales, splices together multi-cultural themes, multi-lingual dialogue and theatrical forms as far reaching as south India’s Kathakali, Chekhov’s naturalism, Japan’s Kabuki, Shakespeare and a splash or two of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty.
Poor Cornélia (Hélène Cinque, a marvelous actress who carries the play on her shoulders with calm, humor and a quiet charisma) is the assistant director of an unnamed theatre troupe. She is awakened in the middle of the night by a telephone call from a panicked Astrid (screechingly voiced by Thérèse Spirli), the troupe’s administrator who informs a dumbfounded Cornélia that the company is stranded in Paris due to political disorder, leaving Cornélia with the responsibility of creating, from scratch, a program to present in India.
A flummoxed Cornélia returns to bed. A series of dream sequences—called visitations—magically pour out across the vast set, a room in India that could easily accommodate a hundred guests. Each visitation is always terminated by yet another nervous call from good old Astrid. It is these fantasy sequences, in different theatrical forms, that are the main part of the running time of A Room in India.
The visitations include: Lear and Cordelia portrayed by Asian actors, Seietsu Onochi & Man-Waï Fok; two mischievous monkeys (Seear Kohi & Arman Saribekyan, quite believable); William Shakespeare (a jolly, but puzzled, Maurice Durozier); seven members of the Taliban; a take-off on desert cinema; the God Krishna (Palani Murugan, both dignified and warm-hearted); Mahatma Gandhi (a noble Samir Abdul Jabbar Saed); and Anton Chekhov (Arman Saribekyan, trying to be a sage in unfamiliar circumstances) and the Three Sisters (Dominique Jambert, Andrea Marchant and Alice Milléquant, who turned them into ghostly visions).
The standout moments of the show came from a section called The Death of Karna in which Karna (Sébastien Brottet-Michel) threatens Ponnuruvi (a heart-breaking Shaghayegh Beheshti) whose supplications moved the entire audience.
All the actors, even those assigned to be part of The Great Police Security Brigade at the theater entrance and Nirupama Nityanandan who played Cornélia’s troubled host, Madam Murti, and all those in between, were brilliant and totally immersed in the play, a hallmark of Mnouchkine’s direction.
A minor criticism is that there is far too much slapstick and bathroom humor in A Room in India: A servant, Jayaraj (a good-natured Agustin Letelier) constantly falls on his face; Cornélia is seen running into a very visible toilet, using it and wiping herself—at least ten times for no apparent reason other than to get a guffaw from the worldly audience. Perhaps it’s a European sensibility, but it becomes distracting to the point of causing the audience to groan by the fifth or sixth time she wipes her bottom. Also, a violently melodramatic ending came as a shock.
A Room in India (December 5-20, 2017)
Thompson Arts Center at the Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue (between 66th and 67th Streets)
New York, NY
For tickets, call 212-993-5812 or visit www.armoryonpark.org
Running time: four hours, including one intermission