ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 2, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 14

Some bright patches amidst the blackness

Jake Oorloff reflects on StageLight and Magic’s Noir TheatreFest at the Punchi Theatre recently

David Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’ is a thought-provoking play that looks at the issue of sexual harassment on campus in a radical light. Only two characters appear on stage; an undergrad, waiting, seated in front of her professor, whose class she has flunked, to discuss her grades. He is on the phone, discussing the impending purchase of his house? And he starts addressing the student. She starts fumbling for words? Starts taking notes? The exorcism begins!

Marsh Dodanwela in The Devil and Billy Markham

Before the play is halfway through, the Professor is brought before the Tenure Committee for sexual harassment? Who is right, who is wrong? In the no-man's land between misunderstanding and sexual harassment, the play questions the basic fabric of society.

The audience watches with impotent dread as the relationship between professor and student entirely breaks down. This is the gender war, and more than that. It's the generation gap, and more than that. It's the class struggle, and more than that what strikes you is how exhilarating fine writing can actually be.

The name 'Oleanna' is in fact 'Oleana'. Oleana (1810-1880) meaning Ole Bull was a Norwegian virtuoso violinist who, while in Pennsylvania in 1852, fell in love with the place and bought a vast tract of land and tried to set up an idealistic community, which he called 'Oleana', where fellow Norwegians could live peacefully and escape the tyrannies of their homeland. The land however was completely unsuitable for farming and the venture failed. Most of them, Ole Bull included, returned to Norway. An 'oleana' is thus used to refer to the hopeless pursuit of an idealistic, even utopian, dream where all things are naively held to be possible.

The StageLight&Magic (SLM) theatre company’s production directed by Ifaz Bin Jameel was elegantly staged, the best part of it being the lighting; exact positioning and perfect timing reminiscent of a black and white classic film. The props and setting were sparse and yet effective and the set-changes between the scenes though perhaps taking too much time were still effective.

The first thing that struck me about the actors was that they were physically suited for the play and yet they rarely connected with each other and or with the characters. The Professor played by Feroze Kamardeen seemed awkward in his use of the space, and his phone conversations that punctuated the play delivered in a loud staccato patter were ineffective.

Carol played by Swasha Perera was in parts unconvincing, particularly as an innocent college girl; the transition into a manipulating activist sudden and intangible. For a large part hysteria was confused with drama. Mamet’s signature overlapping speech is very effective if used properly. In this production the overlapping speech kept drifting –somewhere between shouting and hysteria. The tension at times came through very strongly but for a large part wasn’t allowed to develop.

The music with its sweeping cadences of what sounded like the soundtrack of an epic film was rather disjointed and didn’t once match the mood on stage. As a whole, the production lacked the finesse of some of SLM’s early efforts.

Date – July 13
Plays – The Specialist, The Lesson

The second week of Noir Extra Dark Theatre Fest subjected Colombo audiences to a double barrel – The Specialist by Eric Bogosian and The Lesson by Eugène Ionesco, both directed by Anuruddha Fernando.

The Specialist performed by Ifaz Bin Jameel is a one-man piece and features a presentation of an instructor speaking of the best methods, practices and safety measures on the subject of Torture. Controlled and entertaining to a large extent, Bin Jameel’s performance failed to convey the chill that the piece demanded.

The second play for the evening was The Lesson by French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco. Written in 1951, The Lesson is a darkly comic one-act play that depicts a nonsensical and increasingly menacing tutorial between a deranged professor played by Michael Holsinger and an obtuse pupil, Shehara Jayasinghe – an encounter laced with free-handed critiques of learning, authority and sexual politics.

Michael Holsinger’s performance, complete with nervous tics, and sputtering lisp, was played in the same intensity and as a result the whole was flat. The awkwardness of the physical proximity to his attractive overeager pupil was in parts funny and effective. Holsinger, and the director, paid too much attention to playing character and less to the actually acting or playing between actors. There was very little drama on stage because of the focus being on characterization. The Professor’s deteriorating grip on propriety and reality is the play's centerpiece and Holsinger did manage to keep the play going.

Shehara Jayasinghe’s performance was very controlled and sincere. A good bit of acting and yet more could have been done with the role!

The play also examines class distinctions; The Maid (Aida Mansoor) like in ‘The Bald Soprano’ is stronger and saner than her employer. And the finale, seething with psychosexual overtones has the professor making a smarmy confession to the Maid. The scene was rushed over and not given enough time to develop resulting in the multi layers being lost. Aida Mansoor’s performance, again caricatured, was in parts entertaining.

The set was sparse and contributed to an atmosphere without undue intrusion. However the mimed door being on stage and the opening and closing of it looked very haphazard. We didn’t need to see a door; neither did we need to see it being mimed. The props being mimed did not contribute to the overall effect and the actors simply forgot their existence half way through the play. The dramatic climax (where the professor kills his student) lacked direction and didn’t quite peak.

A chilling, but anarchically funny drama of verbal domination, the Lesson is a bold choice for a director. The production failed to wow but the evening was entertaining nevertheless.

Date – July 20
Play – The Other Side

This was the third week of the Noir Theatre Fest and as I walked in to the Punchi Theatre I was preparing myself for yet another rather tedious evening. But the play reinforced my belief that SLM do have the potential for producing good theatre. The Other Side by Ariel Dorfman was directed by Feroze Kamardeen – and is that most difficult of theatrical genres, an absurdist allegory, a sort of Ionesco meets Beckett, in which Atom Roma (Arjuna Wignaraja) and Levana Julak (Neluka Silva) are the sort of Everyman and Everywoman caught in the middle of conflicts that seem to be never ending.

Neluka Silva’s treatment of the character was convincing. The quiet intimacy between her character and Atom Roma worked very well and managed to charm. The director and the actor however, could perhaps have done more with the character of Levana Julak. Arjuna Wignaraja to a large extent was convincing and the characterisation tangible but not sustained.Again, in the intimacy between the husband and wife; the scenes that were physically close were extremely well played, but as soon as he stood up or used the performance space he slipped back to being himself.

Pubudu Jayawardene’s subtly nuanced performance held most of the play together. And his presence on stage did bring in the drama that was needed. I did feel however that the character of Joseph/ the Guard was more a naïve misguided youth than a rather arrogant soldier convinced of his role in a conflict that was larger than himself. Pubudu Jayawardene’s portrayal was hinged on the latter.

What dampened the evening were the director’s weak attempts at adapting the play. This consisted of rather jarring one-liners suggesting the play was in a border village in Sri Lanka. The exercise of adding these one-liners made the whole seem very contrived and rather haphazard. The detailed set with its cumbersome props restricted the actors. Levana Julak’s house again suggested the play was set in Sri Lanka. With ‘soup?’ being cooked on a clay hearth and being served in ‘melamine bowls?’ Colombo’s theatre patrons after 20 odd years of armed conflict can relate to a situation of war; we didn’t need the play to be set in Sri Lanka to identify with it.

The evening despite this was captivating, the highlight being the moments of quiet drama beautifully played out by the actors.

Returning for the last two plays, I was told “You don’t want to miss anything!” by an overeager crew member. The bright first play for the evening, a short one-act titled ‘An Interview’ written by David Mamet and directed by Feroze Kamardeen deals with an interrogation of a sleazy lawyer forced to answer difficult questions from his childhood and career. Played by Jithendra Senivirathne and Shashane Perera this quirky piece of theatre demanded a lot from the actor. The actor’s body is key and what was lacking in the case of Jithendra Senivirathne was control thereof.

This was heightened by the fact that his co-actor Sashane Perera was extremely controlled and his use of props and space skilled. Sashane’s was probably one of the best performances of the Fest.

The second play for the evening was The Devil and Billy Markham written by Shell Silverstein and directed by Ifaz Bin Jameel. Billy Markham, an unforgettable character who starts in a blues bar in Nashville’s Music Row, takes us to Hell and back again, gambles with the Devil and loses his soul, and matches wits with both God and the Devil.

Performed by Marsh Dodanwela, this was a sure crowd-pleaser and as far as one man shows go, I think, one of the best plays I’ve seen in Colombo this year. Very well directed and performed, Marsh Dodanwela displayed brilliant mastery of his art. The play that was entirely written in rhyming couplets was a treat and made sitting through some of the other plays of the Fest worth it. He effortlessly shifted from character to character and the overall effect was very good.

The only criticism was the ‘song’. The use of the song to add variety to the piece was a good choice and particularly in a one man show the actor makes use of all he’s got, but what went wrong was that the smoky bluesy feel that Marsh had maintained throughout the play changed into a wannabe rock star. The flashing lights on the cyclorama did not help. However this did not ruin the evening for me and it was a good choice of play, good casting and good direction.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.