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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

Naatak's Mela '17: A Rollicking Ride with Six Short Plays

Naatak has picked for its Mela '17 production, six humorous, ironic and engaging plays, presented in 6 Indian languages. It opened on Labor Day after days of blistering bay area heat, and Palo Alto’s Cubberley Theatre offered a welcome air-conditioned respite.

After I had taken my seat, a couple came in and sat next to me.

“You came alone?” the gentleman asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Where is your husband?”

“I don’t have one.”

"Where is your boyfriend?”

“I don’t have one.”

“You should talk to me,” he exclaimed, with mock concern. His wife smiled tolerantly.

(I didn’t explain that Sunaina, who could have joined me, steadfastly refuses (with an 11-year-old’s clarity) to accompany me to anything with subtitles or supertitles. A habit that I hope she will shed before she misses too much more. She can, after all, read. And often, the acting is sufficient to grasp the plot.)

My seat neighbors and I proceed to converse about which parts of India each of us was from, what languages we spoke, about Naatak, their recent production Toba Tek Singh (reviewed here). The first play was in Marathi: "The Madman on the Fifth Floor" by Anil Sonar. A colorful, noisy scene unfolds with street vendors, a policeman, a roadside Romeo and several others all gazing upwards. They are peering at a man who is standing on the ledge of a fifth-floor window. Despite much back-and-forth, his predicament remains a mystery.

The twist in the final scene reveals the sobering story. The audience's shock was palpable as the lights went down on stage.

With perfect timing, a Naatak musician (whose name I couldn't find in the program) came out and played a slow melody on a flute for a few minutes. It was necessary and apt, allowing the audience to collect its emotions before the next play.

The rest of the performance was a rollicking, fun ride. The Naatak Improv (in Hinglish!) was a hoot, with energetic and creative improv artists performing sidesplitting skits using occasionally bizzarre prompts from the enthusiastic audience. The Bengali piece, "What Will People Say?", is skillfully adapted from Alice Gerstenberg's play "He Said and She Said". The 1920s era American living room is morphed into a modern Bengali one where an incorrigible gossip meets her match and a fitting fate.

“A Tragedy in Kanchi” is adapted from Oscar Wilde's "A Florentine Tragedy", set in 16th century Italy. This Tamil production, set in a bygone era in Kanchipuram (famed for its silks) is impressive with its set design, music and costumes. A roving prince, a silk merchant and his wife transport us to the days of royalty and silk looms. In a dramatic fight scene, sparks literally fly from clashing swords.

"The Open Window" by HH Munro (Saki) has been transformed into a thoroughly entertaining Hindi piece. A convalescent out-of-town visitor drops in to meet a family his sister had met years ago. A young girl there turns out to be a skillful storyteller, capturing the imagination of the terrified visitor as well as her own unsuspecting family.

The Gujarati play “Everyone Loves an Errand Boy” was based on Manto's radio play "Aao Baat to Suno". My favorite line from this was a family elder exclaiming that somebody's son "went to Stanford University and now works in a lift." The younger man replies patiently that it's not a lift, it's the name of a ridesharing company. The delightful confluence of high tech and no tech.

It was a pleasure to watch these talented actors bring story after story alive on stage. Bravo, Naatak!

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