A Room in India
directed by Ariane Mnouchkine
The Park Avenue Armory
New York, NY
December 9, 2017
“You need to get some distance and it was the distance of the voyage…” said Ariane Mnouchkine, the famous theater director from Paris while speaking with theater director and writer Eugenio Barba in 2016. Dreams are voyages. One experiences them up close yet can’t touch them, for they control the voyage, create a distance, a much-needed distance that causes a deep awakening. Dreams lead us, sometimes gently, sometimes by force, to the environment within ourselves that we rarely visit and hide from. In this voyage of the dreams, there are two worlds that Mnouchkine explores – the Outer and the Inner. The Outer world is the one we experience collectively – structured living, jobs, social life, boredom, chaos, shocks, surprises etc. Then, we have the Inner world that we experience as individuals – inside us – awakening our memories, reflections, fears, habits, inner lockdowns. Somewhere in the threshold where these two worlds meet is where you would find Mnouchkine and A Room in India, which recently completed a limited engagement at the Park Avenue Armory.
It is fair to say that A Room in India is an event. It is not a dance, a musical, or simply a play, but it’s all those components and more. In fact its largeness is greater than the sum of its parts. An event gathers you and sweeps you like a Tsunami – you don’t have time to reflect while you are there but only time to experience and allow that experience to take you on a flying carpet to places known and unknown – a voyage – and a few days later you feel the effect of that tsunami within you – depleted yet enriched, troubled yet satisfied, judgmental yet awestruck. You are everyone in that event and yet also no one. You cannot control its unfolding but remain like a master puppeteer letting your puppets do their own dance, observing their genius and follies.
A French theater director, Constantin Lear, abandons his team while they are in India. He is troubled by recent terrorist events in Paris and loses his mind. He passes the baton onto his assistant who becomes a wreck in the process. Unable to lead with this new role, the new director, Cornelia, enters a long dialogue with Lear (now representing the largeness of the world of theater) through a series of dreams – her turbulent voyages into distant worlds. The two (Cornelia and the missing Lear) reveal a game of dice where there are no winners and losers. It’s a constant tug-of-war making one wonder what the next move would bring. What is the purpose of this game of dice? Is there a finite result – like the ending of a book?
There is no ending! This game of dice – the dreams that Cornelia constantly has – keeps you addicted, throws you in a spiral. Each roll does not have not much to do with the previous one, yet they are each connected. Each roll is random, yet very prescribed. So is the game of Mnouchkine’s new play A Room in India – a game of dice that seems random at first glance, but instead has a deep thread that connects each one of us. Mnouchkine has placed her vulnerabilities, her inner chaos, her state of deep unrest questioning the purpose of theater in our lives today. Is she the French director who abandons her troupe in India? Who is this unseen Astrid who keeps calling in the middle of the night? (We eventually know he is the administrator panicking from Paris). Why do monkeys come in the middle of the night? How can we possibly find fumbling terrorists comical? Or despair watching a doll being strapped with bombs? What layered stories do these highly dramatized singing theater actors (Therukoottu) from India have to do with France? Gandhi, Chaplin, even Trump … a whole host of characters and situations. Mnouchkine places our own inability to grasp a world spinning out of control into a dialogue with someone she knows best – Theater! If theater can’t tell us, then who can?
A Room In India is an ongoing revelation of vignettes – each a concentrated capsule of high intensity emotions and neurosis that doesn’t give permission for a moment of calm and meditation. If a more inexperienced director had created this, I would be inclined to call the construction pure noise. But in the hands of a master craftsman, this noise become delicious chaos – we yearn for this scattering even if we each wish to take control and mold it our way. Is she bold? Controversial? Yes! But that’s expected. Ariane Mnouchkine is one of the leading theater directors in the world whose company, Le Theater du Soleil, is like a mini representation of the world – actors from different countries, speaking varied languages and having different talents. They gather to create collectively from nothing but from the tools they own and end up creating together a world of riches. They take us on many voyages through their intimate experience of life. For a person who knows the street/folk theater from my state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, I found it hard to tell if the actors came from my land or not – so embodied was the performance that it didn’t matter where each was from.
With so many divisions in today’s society dwelling on identity and culture, A Room in India reminds us that what we have is simply each other – black, brown or white; male, female or any gender; rich, middle class or poor. Without a common humanity there is no room, no place, no life anymore. This ultimately is what theater reminds us of – a voyage not to be rationalized, made politically correct or culturally authentic but instead to have that healthy distance so it can be purely experienced, savored – what in India we call the sensation of the flavor as we taste it – Rasa!
A Room in India, a collective creation by the Theatre du Soleil, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine from Theatre du Soleil, is performed by 35 multinational actors. Music by Jean-Jacques Lemetre together with Helene Cixous, with the exceptional participation of Kalaimamani Purisai Kannappa Sambandan Thambiran. A Room in India was performed at The Park Avenue Armory, NY between Dec 5th and 20th 2017 as an exclusive engagement with The Armory.
A native of Madras (now Chennai) in South India, Preeti Vasudevan is an award winning dancer, choreographer, educator, movement analyst, and writer. She holds a Masters in Dance Studies from Laban Centre London, and is a Certified Movement Analyst from the Laban Institute of Movement Studies in New York. After moving to New York, she founded her own company and performing arts collaborative, Thresh, in 2004, and developed a ground-breaking educational website used in NYC Public Schools, Dancing for the Gods, to build a cultural bridge through creative Indian dance. Her most recent creation, Stories by Hand, premiered last month at New York Live Arts. She now lives, almost all the time, in New York.