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Barefoot with bells on

Evam's production was a reckless slapping of gloss

Neil Simon may have been done to death in Bangalore over the last 40 years but there's a whole new generation that has yet to discover him. When Evam, a two-year-old theatre group from Chennai, staged Simon's 1963 smash hit Barefoot in the Park at Chowdiah Hall recently, one was a bit curious as to how they would handle it, especially since the production was touted as a "musical adaptation".

The co-founder of the group Karthik Kumar explained that whichever play they took up for production, they would bring to it their special stamp. Hence his predilection for tagging on the words "by evam", like a patent logo, to the titles of the plays they do — a grand total of six so far. Therefore you have "Love Letters by evam", "Death by evam", and so on. There's also "Evam Indrajit by evam", and since "evam" means "and" in Sanskrit, this would translate as "And Indrajit by and". Karthik does not find this funny. As for "Barefoot in the Park by evam", he had seen the Mike Nichols movie version (Robert Redford-Jane Fonda) which he found wanting. He felt it needed the Evam touch. The restaurant scene in particular he found "boring".

One could hardly wait to see this brave new interpretation. It turned out to be Neil Simon served straight up. But with bells on. You know those school projects where a pupil sticks lots of pictures and writes in different coloured inks to aim for more marks? Evam had followed the same principle. The trappings they had stuck on to the script consisted of the following: background music, two dancers, computer images, a short scene in the lobby, and a man in drag.

The "musical adaptation" primarily amounted to a (recorded) piano playing "Summertime" (the play is set in the dead of winter), "Love and Marriage" and other numbers between acts. There was an overlong introduction to the play: a screen projection of an extended series of snaps of Paul and Corie's wedding (painstakingly staged and shot) and photographs of heart-shaped arrangements. The minutes ticked by. A couple in black did an entire dance routine and the audience clapped uncertainly. At last, Neil Simon surfaced.

The play moved briskly without hitches (except for one blank period when there were lights but no action). The actors' sense of comic timing was accurate, particularly that of Karthik (Paul) and Arun (the weird Russian neighbour Victor Velasco). But why in tarnation did Evam have to cast T.M. Karthik as Corie's mother except to raise a few cheap laughs? Could they find no suitable woman? The man is obviously talented but since he was unable to modulate his voice it remained an irritatingly monotone falsetto. Andrea (Corie) was a bit too cutesy-pie. The restaurant scene, which led to the interval, was played in the lobby and witnessed by roughly 75 people. It had a sing-along with drunken diners dancing around the table. This was Evam's nod to "audience interaction".

The dancing (Aishwarya and Manikantan) seemed wholly gratuitous until the twosome executed a mistimed sequence to match the growing disharmony of the newlyweds. Finally, one saw the point. They ended in harmony: a brief twirl followed by a tossing of the rose at the audience, quite stylish. Such subtlety was all too rare in the Evam production. The group should learn that adaptation doesn't mean recklessly slapping on gloss and glitter. "Mixed media" may be the in thing and dancing might dazzle, but are they relevant? Changes, when warranted, are always welcome.

C.K. MEENA

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