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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

"Proof" by Naatak Theatre Company

A couple of months ago, Naatak UpClose presented “Proof”, David Auburn’s intense, Pulitzer Prize winning play, directed by Devika Ashok. Naatak UpClose productions are smaller, more intimate productions, well-suited for plays reliant more on dialogue than action. I watched "Proof" at the MVCPA Second Stage on April 20th, 2019. Yes, despite my best intentions, life took over and I am only now posting my impressions.

In "Proof", Catherine, the young daughter of a brilliant mathematician plagued with mental illness, continues to converse with him after he has died. She has his gift for mathematics, and given this one similarity with her father, fears that it might extend further and affect her own sanity.

"Proof" was made into a movie in 2005, with astounding performances by Anthony Hopkins and Gwyneth Paltrow. The movie had some deviations from the play that were likely intended to draw out suspense or throw in a plot twist, which ended up, as I saw it, diluting the searing purity of the play.

Naatak’s production, no surprise, is true to Auburn’s play, word for word.

Rinki Suri did a distinguished job with her portrayal of Catherine. Catherine is a sympathetic character, still coming to terms with her father’s loss and worried about having inherited his mental illness. Having spent years caring for him, and having dropped out of school to do so, she is socially isolated.

This is a challenging role, requiring a variety of emotions: diffidence, anxiety, listlessness, intensity, humor. And behind it all, hidden behind all the idiosyncrasies, a brilliant mind. Suri’s body language, facial expressions, and tone reflected the nuances of Catherine’s moods, anxieties and frustrations. She was riveting to watch.

Mukund Marathe (a frequent Naatak performer, seen in Rashomon, among others) played the role of Robert, whose mental illness robbed his mind and his exceptional mathematical talent. His phrase for his periods of lucidity is “the machinery is working.”

Mukund Marathe as Robert, and Rinki Suri as Catherine

Right at the onset, we learn that the daughter may be depressed. She has been very close to her father, and engages in conversations with his imagined self, off and on throughout the play. Their strong bond and similarities emerge in one such conversation in which, goaded by him, she narrows down, more and more minutely, the length of time she had withdrawn from society. She ends with 33 ¼ days. At this, the father comments, “Even your depression is mathematical!”

Harold Dobbs is a former student and great admirer of Robert, self-confessed geek and member of a nerd rock band. He is an extremely likable character, fond as he is of Catherine, and barring a short window, confident in her capabilities and kind to her. Arjun Chemparathy played him with ease. Whenever he entered the stage, the atmosphere lightened. For me, the most poignant and powerful lines in the play were spoken by Harold: “There is nothing wrong with you.” This was the validation that Catherine needed to lead a normal life. And it reminded me of the terrible toll mental illness takes on lives, and how essential kindness is, and understanding.

In contrast, Catherine’s sister Claire is the least sympathetic character in the play, flying in to manage everything: the funeral, the house, her sister, and is played ably by Kamala Subramaniam. When Claire announces the plan for selling their father's house, Catherine, horrified, exclaims, "I live here!" Claire sees Catherine as someone to be taken care of, someone incapable of an independent life. The opposite, in other words, of the way Harold sees her.

The dynamic between the siblings: one distant, businesslike and controlling, the other vulnerable, brilliant and genuinely mourning the loss of her father, makes for terrific dramatic tension. The actors pull this off convincingly.

The discovery of an unexpected and brilliant proof in one of Robert's notebooks causes much excitement and agitation as Harold tries to establish who wrote it, and how to prove who did. Were the mathematical techniques traditional, or perhaps much newer?And a shadow of doubt is cast upon his caring for Catherine: is he sincere in his affections or is he simply seeking to further his own career with this astounding discovery, seeing Catherine as his ticket to fame?

The actors shine in this scene: Claire: imperious, dismissive; Harold: skeptical and eventually understanding and apologetic; Catherine: astounded by the skepticism, as fragile and vulnerable as she is brilliant, asserting that her education was not at university: it was through living with her brilliant, intellectually exacting father for 25 years.

The flashbacks where Catherine and Robert converse are compelling, driving the narrative. She finds him one day, seated outside in December (in Chicago!), scribbling away at his notebook. He needs her help, he says, and insists that she read aloud what he has written. She reads, and it is gibberish. Robert is larger than life with his exceptional achievements, and it is wrenching to witness his mental decline. Marathe's depiction of Robert unraveling was deeply moving. His portrayal of Robert is poignant and moving: proud and angry one moment, defeated and crumbling in the next.

Robert and Claire had discernable Indian accents, and this threw me off a few times. Distracted, I wondered: can people with accents from one country convincingly portray those squarely set in another, with no reference at all to this difference? Could Catherine, Robert, Claire and Harold all be desis?! Why not, I thought. (What to do, we are like that only!) The script wouldn't need to be stripped of its iconic locations in the US of A: perhaps the characters could be portrayed as definitively desi? We do not need to shed who we are to play iconic roles....Glenda Jackson, after all, portrayed a female King Lear! Read this fabulous write-up about her role by Parul Sehgal of the New York Times.

In some earlier productions such as Mela ’17 which I watched, the joyful Indianization of Western plays by Naatak has made them exceedingly fun to watch. To get a glimpse of how Naatak has pulled off desification of a Western play more recently, see my write-up on "Marjorie Prime." also a play about a character's mental decline.

Naatak's "Proof", however, was not Indianized at all: we have it exactly as David Auburn wrote, with Catherine, Robert, Claire and Harold in Chicago and in New York. And they are played by desis, only, as though they are not desis. Even though they speak like desis. This was my only struggle with the production, and perhaps I am nitpicking. Other than that, I was riveted and hung on every word of this brilliant play.

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