Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Gar(b)age Show: Where does it really end?

Review of “The Garage Show About Living on Garbage”, unveiled at No 12, Grenier Road, Off Cotta Road, Colombo 8 on June 16, 17, and 18.

The title misleads. It makes us think that it’s an underground theatre movement, shirked by many and patronised by a few. But it’s not. The organisers derive flesh and blood from their performances. They instil some sense of realism, of verisimilitude, with what they do. They’ve been doing that for the past few shows, ever since they began last year. With four shows now complete, it seems therefore that IdeaCouch, far from receding to the background like much of the English (and even Sinhala) theatre does nowadays, has gained a fresh lease of life every time its founders give us its showcase item, the Garage Show. The fourth show was held last month.

The most interesting aspect of these productions, the way I see it, has been its use of space. To be sure, they have all been staged (though that’s not quite the correct term) in spacious homes. The Garage Show About Living on Garage, unveiled on June 16, 17, and 18 (from Friday to Sunday), took place in the biggest such house thus far, in a comfortable lane off Cotta Road, around Borella (the residence of President’s Counsel Mr Chandana Liyanapatabendy). To use what little they have, and to ensure that their skits are seen and even read from every angle, has been the objective of those behind IdeaCouch. Whether they like it or not, the discerning audience will take that as the yardstick to measure their standard(s).

So how did About Living on Garage fare? First and foremost, it reeked of energy. After a point I didn’t bother counting the skits, so enthralled was I by the clarity and vividness that went into them all. They opened up, I remember clearly, with a meditation on the garbage that surrounds us, sometimes between and even within us, by Lakshitha Edirisinghe. “I was angered by the garbage problem,” he says rather furiously, and then reverts to his former joviality, “So I shared a post on Facebook about it.” That provocative fissure between anger and pathos, which has made up our collective attitude of disgust towards the recent spate of rainstorms, garbage dump collapses, and deteriorating cityscapes, was summed up succinctly in those two lines. To my relief, that balance was kept right throughout.

There were skits I took to at once and skits that took time to get to me. They delved into diverse individuals, issues, and milieus. Right after the second skit, about a forgetful old man (Rehan Amaratunga) fretting over his piano and his dead wife, there was a sustained, tortured conversation by a woman (Ruwendi Wakwella) with herself (Shalini Corea), less a soliloquy than an incomplete catharsis over her going out with a shady man (Sachi Gamage), in turn followed by a light-hearted banter between four co-workers over a presentation on insensitivity. The mood, in other words, was never static, never confined: it liberated itself throughout.

We live at a time when everything and anything is condemned to the dustbin and the dump. But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as that oft-quoted cliché goes, so what one milieu considers as garbage can be a luxury for another. There was, for instance, a hilarious if not pathos-ridden skit about what a young woman (Shalini) should wear: her mother (Dmitri Gunatilake) bemoans her lack of interest in her own wardrobe, which leads to a laughable encounter with the father (Vishan Gunawardena) upstairs. But then a few skits later, we have two “garbage men” (Lakshitha and Haseeb Hassen, the former bitter and angry, the latter amicable and content) reflecting on their sorry lives. This contrast, which isn’t so much a contrast as it is a reality, was what I liked best about this Garage Show compared with its previous instalment, About Celebrating This Season (presented last December).

For that reason, the performances were somewhat uneven. I saw Vishan play a confused, shell-shocked husband and later an ill-tempered father. But this wasn’t true of everyone. Eraj Gunawardena played a clumsily dazed everyman in every skit he was in (so dazed, in fact, that when he’s a soldier contemplating on war, he seems less interested in himself than the fact that he is contemplating on something), while Lakshitha, who moved me over his barely concealed, sour rage at the Ananda College production in Drama Comp 2017, was infuriated, resentful, pursed up. The same could be said of arguably my favourite performer, Dmitri Gunatilake, who made us laugh with her dexterity in both Sinhala and English.

Sometime back (writing on Drama Comp) I contended that the Sinhala theatre focuses on open characters that have something to hide, while the English theatre focuses on repressed characters that want to get out. This was, I daresay, partly true of About Living on Garage: even in those skits that were played out in Sinhala, we felt the poignancy, the pathos, and the urgency of the characters in their attempt to escape from and be done with their troubles. Lakshitha as a garbage man, for instance, nurses a swollen foot: he has diabetes and needs to see a doctor. Sachi, an émigré stationed in Australia, has to pay his bills while working as another garbage man, though his predicament is different: he is also an Engineering student.

The milieus that the English theatre subsists on generally are sympathetic towards these characters, though their sympathy is tempered by the luxury of time and ease that they possess. They are moved to extremities of pity, but are forced to repress them when the show is over. I was not surprised, therefore, when Asoka Handagama, in a Facebook post, had to say this about the production: “It reminds me of the Street Theatre by Haththotuwegama and (Parakrama) Niriella in the 70s and the early 80s. They brought theatre to streets and in contrast to them, this group brings theatre home. Home Theatre?”

That unnerves me. Handagama has brought up Haththotuwegama and Niriella. The alternate space that these men created in the Sinhala theatre, away from the Wendt, the Navarangahala, and the Lumbini Hall, catered to a group of people who hailed from a different social background. They were conditioned differently, largely left-of-centre, if not leftist, and were emboldened by Brecht and the culture of social realism that invaded our halls in the second half of the 20th century.

If the English theatre is to occupy an alternate space in that context, and given the social conditioning of its patrons (you and I, men, women, and children who lead fairly comfortable lives), will it remain estranged from our streets and substitute, for the Wendt, an overwhelmingly spacious Colombo house? Does it recede away from its surroundings under a different garb? I believe Handagama has said a lot in what he has not said, and that he has opened up a fresh debate. Whether it should trouble us, of course, is for another article altogether. But consider that quality of much of what goes for English plays today (i.e. their focus on repressed, often hysterical characters who want to unleash themselves) and the conservative streak apparent in them, and you can understand why I am happy with AND provoked by The Garage Show.

Is this a critique, though? By no means. I concede that the social conditioning of theatregoers isn’t something the playwrights can change. The most they can do, given that, is to force them to think differently, to deliver them productions that delve into ideas and issues. The pace at which the skits in About Living on Garbage alternated helped in that respect: it helped us see the multidimensionality of a problem which has forced our country to suffer in silence. By doing away with the need for a stage and proscenium, by compelling us to see the items from nearly every conceivable angle (in an almost Rashomon-like manner, making us question the veracity of what we saw), IdeaCouch has unleashed a veritable revolution in the English theatre.

So yes, I liked this Garage Show. I liked the setting, the fact that the players and the director had to work around certain limits they had no say in shaping (with respect to the house), and how they worked around and despite them. That alone, I believe, can transform an essentially uprooted theatre form into something that is more relevant, more conscious of its surroundings, and more relatable.

Written for: Daily Mirror, July 4 2017