Friday, October 23, 2015

Ritualising parable and playing with death

Review of Indika Ferdinando's "The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno", staged on October 10 and 11 at the Asoka Vidyalaya Gymnasium.

Indika Ferdinando's play "The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno" doesn't really have a beginning and an end. There's a story, true, and for the most that develops and moves towards a conclusion. But this is on a superficial level. Indika injects so much into his production, that much of what he's contributed can be missed by the spectator. Put simply, "Signno" demands something new of its audience: that they adapt their notions of the theatre. Why? Because "Signno" is not just a play. It's an experiment. And like all experiments, it tries to create a precedent.

Labels do scant justice to works of art, but with Indika's play they help. He himself has described "Signno" as a "ritualistic parable". The term captures both the traditional and the modern in one go. Aptly. Incorporating elements of the ritual and contemporary theatre, after all, is the thrust of Indika's experiment. But setting the parameters of this experiment, and thereby assessing the final product in terms of those parameters, is challenging for any reviewer.

The label raises questions. "A parable to what?" one can ask. "To everything," one may reply. Indika Ferdinando's play delves into the political, the religious, and the social in ways words can't do justice to. By opting for English as its language (a necessity perhaps, because the play is basically his thesis for Monash University), he interweaves the best of both worlds, with an acute and incisive eye for detail with both the traditional and the contemporary. And so, his "parable" isn't constricted but rather is all-encompassing, encountering new avenues and fighting against the flow of the narrative itself.

The "story" is a challenge in itself. One can't reveal everything, but at a glance it delves into a series of encounters between Death and Life, giving way to a virtual lesson on the lure of power and all its intrigues.

People aren't what they seem. They aren't static and for this reason the human condition enriches any work of art. Indika, it must be said, knows this. He has put in morbid humour in ways that evade categorisation. And in this he is spot on, because the play's resolution (if there ever is a resolution) depends on the encounter between its main players, Signno and Death (Vasavarthi Mara), where the one transmutes into the other: a standoff which confounds the very meaning of standoff.

Does Signno ever repent? Does his triumph over Death augur well? Does Signno's actions provide some message to be taken to heart by us? And above everything else, is there any real resolution in the end? These are questions which spectators (or, as Indika prefers to call them, "experiencers") will no doubt ask and will no doubt get little to no replies to. A "given", since "Signno" does not flow as conventional theatre usually does, and is meant not to answer or resolve, but to accentuate.

This is where the cast aced. Big time. Saumya Liyanage as "Death" was towering, constantly peppering his role with humour and ferocity (whenever he announces himself, his “entourage” shriek and howl with fear). Without losing his grip on a story that teetered between the larger-than-life and the down-to-earth, he made his final encounter with Signno all the more predictable and at the same time tortuous, which rid the ending of any unneeded "final victory" and instead injected a final, ironic twist into it.

Stefan Tirimanne as Signno was more dynamic, thanks to a script that transformed him not once but thrice. Lending conviction to his first transformation – from a suicidal nobody to a soon-to-be messiah – he then went haywire (as per the script) and craftily outsmarted Death. And here he went through his second transformation – to a power-hungry magician.

By disobeying moral sanction (he imprisons Death and presents himself as God), he invites invasion from angel and demon, and here he faces defeat. But no: through a THIRD transformation (best unrevealed here), he embodied the real twist of the play. The plotline, after all, has him as Faust and Mara as Mephistopheles. But the ending, with its twists and convolutions and unresolved note, pitted the two against one another and (shockingly) turned the one INTO the other.

The rest of the cast were excellent, particularly two players: Saviour Kanishka as the narrator, who offers comment and appears more the silent, engaged raconteur; and Jithendra Vidyapathi as an effete Salu Paaliya, who repeatedly tries to push his "alternative narrative" into the audience, but forgets it when he's allowed to do so (the interaction between these two provides much of the play's humour, which threatens to jar at some points but never does, a testament no doubt to how Indika has scripted his experiment). The rest of the cast did wonders, playing multiple roles while accounting for their differing personalities.

At the beginning of "Signno", Salu Paaliya questions why the play lionises the villain and badmouths the hero. True, but in the story there's no real hero. Correspondingly, there's no real villain either. Signno turns out to be as flawed as everyone he tries to escape from at the beginning, but this doesn't make him a complete villain either.

In his final address to the audience, he makes it clear that he has no moral compunction. There's no good and bad in Indika's universe: people exist, and they reveal their emotions and prejudices without inhibition (observe the sequence where Signno and Death visits a dying old man, who asks after each of his children and then exclaims "Apo, she's here too?" comically when asking after his wife).

While the characters assume forever-evolving identities, they sometimes can and do startle. Signno's transformations and Death's final act of submission to him testify to that. Moreover, in Salu Paliya's intrusions into the play, one notices a subtle invitation to comment to the audience, a comment on the play's no-care attitude of questioning and challenging its own flow. Which is where the experiment gains weight, and that by shattering the rift between audience and actor.

Does Indika succeed in this? Yes and no. "Signno" treats its audience as silent onlookers for the most. Its actors rarely address them, except for Salu Paliya and (in his final soliloquy) Signno himself. To his credit, Indika uses several external devices (the "eating sequence" was doubtlessly enjoyed by the audience, and the spraying of fragrances throughout the play was unexpected). But were these enough?

For this writer, where Indika aced his own show was not with those on-the-surface devices, but in several subtle moments in the play where he broke the rift between audience and performance and turned the former into a bunch of "experiencers". “More than anything, I want the audience to feel what they’re watching” was what he said of his goal in "Signno" in an earlier interview. While the eating sequences did achieve that (literally), it was momentary: everyone ate, returned to their seats, and went on with the rest of the play.

On the other hand, in the conversations between the narrator and Salu Paliya, the latter's insistence on reconfiguring the story for himself, and of course Signno's “apotheosis” (which does away with the good/bad dichotomy viewers might have read into the narrative), there was an erasure of the audience/performance barrier. It was with these and not with those peeled off, raw devices that the playwright achieved his goal. Laudably.

There are probably a hundred or so questions viewers will ask of Indika Ferdinando's play. "Could it have been shortened?" is one of them. A question put rightly, because for a story that set Death and Life against each other, the intrusions of other characters and plotlines jarred (in parts). For the most however, an experiment of this sort won where it wanted to end, and with a script and cast that did justice to its director's eclectic, morbid vision.

Yes, Indika won. So did Signno. And so did Death. "How confusing!" Salu Paliya can blurt out. Rightly.

Note: This review was originally sent for publication to THE NATION. This was on Tuesday. On Wednesday the company wound up for reasons which are still unknown in their entirety. My apologies to Indika for not having been able to publicise in print what I have written in words.