Sachini Perera: Mind Adventures is one of the few reasons (another being Ruwanthie De Chickera’s Stages Theatre Group) I still patronise English language theatre productions in Sri Lanka. Originality can come in many forms and what makes Mind Adventures stand out is the intelligence in their productions. They make you think for days after and [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

‘Hit by ‘Paraya’

The Mind Adventures’ immersive theatre production ‘Paraya’ was staged last month. The Sunday Times invited four reviewers to present their take on a different theatre experience in Colombo

Sachini Perera:

Mind Adventures is one of the few reasons (another being Ruwanthie De Chickera’s Stages Theatre Group) I still patronise English language theatre productions in Sri Lanka. Originality can come in many forms and what makes Mind Adventures stand out is the intelligence in their productions. They make you think for days after and in the case of Paraya, I’ll be thinking for weeks and months.

Heightened tension: The audience wearing surgical masks watches as the action unfolds. Pic by Deshan Tennakoon

At the abandoned Hotel Rio, Mind Adventures created an alternate world that was at the same time very familiar. From the moment you stepped into this space, the apprehension that “anything could happen” was palpable. Starting from little details like the unsmiling ushers sternly asking us to stay in line at the gate, the cast did an excellent job in ensuring that this atmosphere was maintained throughout the production though I felt the audience was not so helpful at times.

I wish the audience numbers could have been limited to about 50-60 but understandably there may be logistical and financial challenges in doing so. It was clear that most audience members were unprepared for Paraya and their confusion and lack of engagement diminished the intensity of the production. Personal conversations, trying to locate friends, etc. took away from the atmosphere and space that Mind Adventures had created both with their acting as well as with the choice of location, props, lighting, etc. This will probably be remedied with time as audiences become more familiar with non-traditional forms of theatre because for many it was their first experience of immersive theatre including myself. 

While there were some technical glitches, the director, cast and crew should be lauded for the military precision in the simultaneous execution of the scenes that melded into one production. But out of the characters I followed that night, Ruvin de Silva’s Rajiv Kurukulasuriya deserves special mention. I was in awe of how Ruvin lived and breathed Rajiv without breaking character even for a second.

When I finally stepped out of Hotel Rio, it was with a familiar feeling. I had witnessed and heard horrific things happening around me whether it was censorship or militarisation or torture. By not speaking out and by staying under the radar, I had come out unscathed. Unscathed but with an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that still lingers.

Mariam Riza:

“I love my country first, I love my country second, I love my country third” – words resonated strong irony in the authoritative almost militarised world depicted in the play, Paraya. 

Given its immersive theatre style, scenic design and setting were dynamic, tangible and simple at the same time. The decaying location reflected the crumbling structure of society after years of added oppression. Using the metaphorical concoction of Upekha, the script explored the obligations, practices and propaganda the administration and society lays on itself to establish an “equilibrium” or standard conformity.

Beautifully dramatised by many co-running scenes, audience interaction, delicately placed props and make-up, the play delivered on its promise of a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ story. This was presented flawlessly. Special skills such as singing, characterisation of realistic emotions, behaviour and actions, and lighting and sound added to the surreality of the atmosphere.

An aspect of concern was overcrowding. Recommended would be the reduction of audience quantity to around 20 people to enable more effective viewing (as is the norm in immersive theatre).

Another key element in such theatre is the sensitivity to audience members’ natural disorientation or physical and mental vulnerability. Paraya, on this aspect scored well, as the players within showed care and maturity when dealing with the audience. 

Paraya presented a refreshing, daring approach, not just in genre, but theatre style and form. Innovative, intriguing and invigorating, overall, the commitment, skill and organisation of the players within made Paraya a commendable production, worth watching.

Harshana Rambukwella:

Paraya was an immaculately executed immersive theatrical experience; an ensemble performance from a cast of talented actors. The abandoned Rio Hotel next to the seedy Rio Cinema with its crumbling labyrinthine interior was an apt metaphor for the dystopian State into which the play drew its audience. Being forced to wear surgical masks and being corralled and ordered around heightened the sense of repressiveness in this world where the State was attempting to mass produce obedient, unquestioning citizens. 

But as the play unfolded and audience members followed individual characters and plotlines, the fiction of an all powerful State soon unravelled – we encountered sexual and physical abuse, torture, and dissent – in short a State rotten to its very core and struggling to maintain its suffocating grip on power. Will dissent or the State triumph? Paraya offers no glib answers and there I think is the invitation the play makes for the audience to consider Sri Lanka’s contemporary socio-political reality.

But therein also lies the rub of the intended politics of the play. Paraya in some ways is a not-so-subtle allegory on Sri Lanka’s post-war repressive political culture. Madhavi who undergoes transformation to become a “Chethana”, or conditioned citizen, could be read as a Tamil rebel “reformed” and reintegrated to society and perhaps even Sinhalised as suggested by the name Chethana. 

However, one unintended irony that framed the performance troubled me. The “courtyard” in which Paraya begins and ends is overlooked by several buildings, which by their appearance are suggestive of urban poor or lower middle class homes. Their occupants (including children) were watching the performance with some amusement. I couldn’t help but feel that these people should have been addressed/involved by/in the play.

Why? Because if immersive theatre is about taking risks, part of that risk derives from the space in which the performance happens. Here in Slave Island, in an area that is obviously earmarked for the regime’s controversial urban re-development programme how could the lives of the urban poor have intersected with the political allegory of Paraya? This was a question I was left with and though probably unintended it is the kind of thinking Paraya may have been seeking to inspire. 
I also wondered if Paraya had been a street theatre performance (which in its own way is a kind of immersion) how the dynamics might have been different.

Lal Medawattegedara:

If Paraya is an ‘immersive show’ (as suggested in the document attached to the ticket), it would be accurate to say that the immersion began right at the entrance to Hotel Rio. As I entered this neglected and mistreated edifice, I encountered a security checkpoint where I was issued a temporary travel visa to enter an alternative nation located in the symbolic sphere (possibly Jung’s collective unconscious!). While taking a curious walk around, I noticed the insignia of the nation: an eye. The irony of that symbol became apparent only after the end of the show: whereas an eye has strong connotations of vision, foresight, in this nation – driven to a rare kind of conformity through a psychedelic drug called Upekka – the eye stands for conformity of vision. In other words, vision in this nation is wholesome only when it conforms to one meaning – that meaning is one already-given by the state. Thus the tag-line of the nation: Unity, Conformity, Victory. Anything else, of course, is Paraya!

The actors did a marvellous job of polluting their immediate environment with their individual tension so that anyone sensitive enough would be contaminated! The Rio Hotel served as an awesome backdrop for the depressing political plot.
Perhaps having to stand right through one and half hours of high power drama could be levelled as a criticism – but, sincerely it was all worth it – because I was left with some sense of wholesomeness or fulfilment.

I remembered how a critic recorded his feelings after watching Synge’s ‘Riders to the Sea,’ a peasant tragedy where suffering acts as a powerful transformer of humanity. He felt wholesome after watching how suffering gave way to universal knowledge. That was what I felt after Paraya. A powerful theme managed to cut through all the violence, paranoia, porn, prostitution, filth, sexual perversion: conformity of an entire nation will never be a reality. What else could make a struggling fiction writer like me happy?

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