Monday, February 6, 2017

The Garage Show: The season in skits

Review of IdeaCouch's "The Garage Show About Celebrating this Season", staged at Diyawanna Gardens, Nawala on December 16 and 17

Christmas is associated with a great many things. Bazaars. Bargains. Families. Festivities. Drunk drivers. Plunging bank balances. And pointless small talk. That’s putting it too harshly, but harsh, straight talk is often what it takes to unveil the underside to a festive season, whatever that season may be. Yes, we tend to hide that underside with a veneer of sophistication, but then the reality is that festive seasons are supposed to be about polish when they are not. Nothing new there.

When IdeaCouch premiered the Garage Show last May, the plan was simple: sum up an entire season in a series of “unconventional” skits. This was soon followed by another Garage Show, premiered in June, in turn followed by a novel, as unconventional Garage Show on Christmas at Diyawanna Gardens, Nawala. Because I seem to have a short attention span and can’t concentrate beyond a point with a play or a film, I hence looked forward to seeing it. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Garage Show About Celebrating this Season, “staged” on December 16 and 17, featured harangues, gossip, small talk, and midnight brawls. I came across guitarists, idealists, drunkards, and wayward yuppies. I also came across soliloquies, implausible getaways, scuffles bordering on farce, and machang talk. As the skits came to us faster and faster with the night wading on, I could only think that we weren’t meant to keep track of them all. The selling point of the show, if you can put it that way, was in how the organisers invited us to look at the season from a different perspective. Because of that, I stopped trying to keep up. Fact is, I didn’t need to.

What is Christmas about, come to think of it? Jesus? Santa? Scrooge? The ghosts of the past and the skeletons in your closet? I think IdeaCouch came close to the answer by opting for a combination of everything, depicting the interplay between refinement and crudity that surrounds the hype of the season. From the word go (with a skit by Sachi Gamage serenading to no one, or to the audience), the organisers wanted us to feel that the days before and after December 25 has as much to do with expectation and hope as it has with regrets, fantasies, and the dashed hopes.

For that reason, the actors mattered. There was nothing much of a set for them to work around (as with its previous instalments, it was performed in a house), which coupled with the fact that the audience was literally face-to-face with them meant that the trials, tribulations, hopes, and fears of the characters had to appear genuine. I think the fact that the actors delivered in this regard, and the fact that we laughed, were moved, and grinned with them, indicated that the entire thrust of the show amounted to how well the skits were.

What of the cast then? There were familiar faces and faces I hadn’t come before. Didn’t matter. For me, what mattered was how they all subscribed to the shifting moods of their characters. The skit with the drunken yuppies encountering their irate elders, for instance, sustained my interest through and through. Vishan Gunawardena, as I pointed out to a cast member (to his amusement, I should add) was perfect as an urbane Colombo “uncle”, while Nandun Dissanayake (I could have sworn) seemed to have been born to play the part of the angry and frustrated father. That their characters were older or younger than them and that they were “transformed” into other characters even older or younger as the skits progressed only added to the spirit of familiarity with which the audiences laughed, grinned, and stared on.

Given this, the characters themselves came in different shades. I saw people who didn’t hide their glee at the commercialism the season encounters and I saw people who were content in reflecting on the true meaning of that season. I was particularly moved by the skit with a boy (Lithmal Jayawardhana) and a girl (his girl?) pondering on the latter’s brush with cancer. She reflects, after Pollyanna perhaps, on the better things her cancer opened her to (like being closer to her family and friends). He berates her and reminds her that the disease will not linger on for much longer. They then exit. Just like that. Neatly. And movingly.

Factoring in all this, what exactly did I learn that fateful Friday (December 16)? That Christmas can be about quibbling, atheist sons and patient, religious mothers. That it can be about conspiring to get your friend away from her strict parents to a party. That it can be about obsessing over outdoing your co-workers with respect to Christmas decorations. That it can be about awaiting exam results and uncertain futures. And that it can be about reflecting on your sons and daughters domiciled abroad and hoping that they will be back home some day.

There are a great many things to be said about December 25. IdeaCouch tried to put them all out in a rushed, if not overwhelming, flurry. And you know what? It worked. I came across skits that made me laugh and skits that made me want to question the meaning of the hype surrounding the season. Overwhelming, yes, but in a carefully thought out, preconceived way.

Since I haven’t seen the other two Garage Shows, I can’t comment on whether this was different from or superior to them. I do know, however, that because it’s meant to a continuous series, its sequels will be awaited and expected by a great many theatre-goers. Thankfully, IdeaCouch won’t have to get us cramped up in the rigid formality of a conventional hall for that. The next show, therefore, will be literally staged in a house. Again. As it should be.

Written for: The Island YOUth, February 5 2017