CAPTIVATING AND MOVING
The Guru of Chai
Jacob Rajan – Performer, writer
Justin Lewis – Director, writer
at At a living room near you; possibly yours, Auckland & Wellington
From 11 Feb 2010 to 30 May 2010
Reviewed by Kate Ward-Smythe, 13 Feb 2010
I felt privileged to see a unique preview performance of Indian Ink Company's The Guru of Chai last Thursday night; their 5th work since they formed in 1996.
Approximately 40 people were invited to company co-founder Justin Lewis' house for drinks and nibbles, during which (in lieu of a programme, which is still being written), he gave us a brief history of the play's embryonic process, before we descended the stairs to his makeshift home-theatre for an intimate debut version of Guru.
After an 18-month gestation period (including a trip to Bali), in an unusual step The Guru Of Chai will spend the next 6 weeks touring NZ, playing in a variety of venues from community and school halls to domestic homes, before the company expands the play's run into their established international circuit.
The story leans heavily on Indian folklore with customary hero, villain, and trickster, but Guru is also a universal tale of unrequited love.
Of course Indian Ink have integrated all the hallmarks that their audiences have come to expect: mask, employed here in its broadest sense; puppetry, in the form of a cute stuffed parrot; live music, from a sensitive player introduced only as “Dave” [David Ward]; traditional theatrical devices; simple magic; and the indisputable draw of talented actor Jacob Rajan's honest story telling, through charming physicality and engaging characterisations.
Guru showcases Jacob at his very best and reinforces him as one of NZ's most hard working, deserving, disciplined and gifted theatre artists. While the script and flow need a small amount of tightening here and there, Guru's magical elements all add up to a very captivating, moving piece of theatre.
The evening starts with guru Kutisar addressing us as our spiritual leader. He is a delightfully flawed, entertaining yet hopeless motivational speaker who, after asking us what we want from life and how can he assist, begins by confessing his own every day frustrations rather than imparting divine enlightenment.
Our dear guru shifts gear, introduces his very fine parrot and begins again – this time he tells us a story about a young girl called Balna who, along with her 6 sisters, is abandoned at an Indian railway station by their widower father. Far from perishing, the sisters take up residence at the station next to Kutisar's tea stall, and busk. Their singing, especially Balna's, brings great joy, as well as prosperity and many admirers. A young ambitious policeman called Punchkin falls in love with Balna but is rejected in favour of a disreputable poet called Imran.
All Guru's characters are played by Jacob, yet this is not a one-man-show. While Dave the musician doesn't speak, he provides ideal support, pitching the tone and texture of musical segues, to provide the perfect coda to a speech or scene. His clear singing, exquisite banjo playing, inspired sound effects, such as a plastic bag rustling next to his mic to depict rain, plus the judicious use of a sample machine, are reoccurring motifs throughout the story. And when he's joined by Jacob on key-tar for a fabulous upbeat opening song in Indian, yet reminiscent of the Beatles' Norwegian Wood, it is a thing to behold.
I very much enjoyed The Guru of Chai's story-telling style of gate-crashing serious moments with amusing jokes, witty remarks or light-hearted insight. Yet when I reflect on Guru, it is its solemn theme of corruption and the potential for any (seemingly) good soul in a position of power to become corrupt that leaves the lasting impression. While contemporary India is the background for the play, it's key questions – whom can you trust? can you even trust yourself? – apply no matter where you live. Perhaps this is how a trip to Bali helped to inspire the final shape of play. No doubt the company notes in the soon to be released programme will shed more light.
Thankfully, Justin and Jacob avoid giving Guru a down-beat end, choosing instead to let our delightful yet dubious guru Kutisar finish with his simple version of enlightenment; his answer to the question pondered earlier.
I would highly recommend seeing the play at someone's house if you are able, as seeing Jacob's craft this close up is a rare personal theatrical experience. Stripped of a theatre's conventional layout, ambience,technical support and staging traditions; and relying instead on domestic lamps, light-switches, wall hangings, rugs, tea, a torch, and little audience participation… The Guru of Chai connects in an immediate and wonderful way.
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