Funny how four hours doesn t feel so long when you are given the whole world in exchange.
And that s what s on offer in the ThÃ©Ã¢tre du Soleil s boundary-busting production of A Room in India, which opened Tuesday night at the Park Avenue Armory: The whole awful, silly, disturbing, mystifying, contradictory world in one sitting.
Perhaps that bounty is to be expected from a theater collective whose 100 members, representing 26 nationalities, each get a say in the proceedings (and identical portions of meals at their Paris base). And yet even in comparison with other Soleil productions including Les ÃphÃ©mÃ¨res, which appeared at the Amory in 2009 there is something especially anarchic and encompassing about A Room in India. It sometimes feels like watching a chicken dance with its head cut off.
Which is hardly to call Ariane Mnouchkine who helped found the company in 1964 and is the director of A Room in India a chicken. But in response to the November 2015 terrorist attack on Paris that killed 130 people, she did offer the members of her troupe a rather zany prompt: What if a theater company much like their own, in residence in a former French colonial town in India, discovered that its director had gone mad and left the group to fulfill an important commission on the fly?
A Room in India is, and is not, the result. It does take place in Pondicherry, India, and the director a male character pointedly named Lear has indeed gone off the deep end, cavorting about town naked and desecrating the local statue of Gandhi. The job of creating the commission somehow falls to an unimaginative assistant, CornÃ©lia, even though she has never in her life managed to produce a single artistic gesture.
But instead of showing us what the dizzy CornÃ©lia (HÃ©lÃ¨ne Cinque) comes up with, A Room in India gives us an encyclopedia of the anxious visions she dreams one night while seeking a suitable subject. These visions, which come to life in the vast room of the title, range both in style and in content through many of the world s theatrical traditions and a heaping helping of its oddities and ills.
Among the genres traversed are farce, adventure, social realism, puppetry, Japanese drama and YouTube documentary. (Shakespeare, Chekhov, a cow and two macaques all make appearances, because why not.) Among the terrible topics covered are ecological disaster, the Syrian civil war, Hindu-Muslim enmity, the death of culture and, naturally, terrorism. In one horrific scene, the company s artists, instead of sewing costumes, produce a tiny explosive vest for a little boy to wear on a suicide mission.
And yet this image is quickly wiped away, as all the visions are, by the ringing of a loud phone that wakes CornÃ©lia from her feverish sleep. A Room in India is more interested in the process of creation than in the product, perhaps because, as CornÃ©lia fears, a product may never be precise enough to be, or do, good.
Though the work s structure is comically recursive, eventually the visions point more insistently toward one subject and one style. The subject is the disempowerment of women, especially in Indian and Arab cultures. In an affecting flashback that somehow winds up in CornÃ©lia s dream, her landlady in Pondicherry, a Hindu schoolteacher called Madam Murti (Nirupama Nityanandan), is forcibly separated from the man she loves by her bullying brother, bent on honor.
At another point, a group of Saudi Arabian bureaucrats seeking advice about improving their country s record on women s rights is shown videoconferencing with Icelandic officials. The hysterical response of the Saudis to the cheerful Icelanders a lesbian, a gay man and a woman whose husband stays home to care for the children is presented as a smutty sex comedy.
This is striking. Though Ms. Mnouchkine is more of a blithe cultural appropriator than a purveyor of stereotypes, the sex-crazed sheikhs seem to go too far. A Room in India also tries, with mixed success, to see if terrorists can be made funny, in the manner of the Keystone Kops. And yet, for all of the company s catholic tastes, there are lines of relativism it will not cross. Thus, as CornÃ©lia narrows in on the Mahabharata as her source, she chooses (or is chosen by) two stories The Rape of Draupadi and the Death of Karna that highlight women s agency and ingenuity.
The stories are staged in the Terukkuttu theatrical style of South India, a tradition rich with ornate singing and dancing but also with gorgeous costumes and clever stage tricks. As part of an attempt by her husband to humiliate her, Draupadi (Judit JanscÃ³) is to be stripped of her sari but foils the plan by wearing what seem to be hundreds. Spinning like a bobbin, she wraps fabric around her body as fast as others can pull it off.
And even though the other story, about a warrior and his wife (Shaghayegh Beheshti), is more tragic, she is allowed the great dignity of marital love and grief. You need not understand the Tamil words (or read the supertitles) to be knocked over by the sung power of her feelings.
Still, I can t say I fully understood why the two Mahabharata stories were featured as the culmination of all the others. Surely, CornÃ©lia s earlier visions were just as compelling, filled with pressing dangers to both the world and the theater. (One subplot involves an absurd ministerial inquiry into the purpose and efficacy of art.) And the attempted denouement, in which a Chaplinesque ayatollah delivers a peroration, untied nothing for me.
But upon reflection and, to be honest, amid all the hoopla, you have ample time for reflection I came to feel a new and helpful idea arising from the crazy stew of delicious visions. Which is that the story of women, the story CornÃ©lia finally settles upon, is not an outlier to the other concerns raised by A Room in India. Rather, it is the central story. In Ms. Mnouchkine s imagination, and maybe finally ours, the theater is a woman, and so is the world.