Theater review by Adam Feldman
In its latest transnational epic, Paris's seminal Théâtre du Soleil finds itself in a fine mess—or at least it looks for itself in one. The company's previous two New York offerings, 2005’s Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées) and 2009’s Les Éphémères, demonstrated awe-inspiring control of multinarrative storytelling. But director Ariane Mnouchkine's new devised piece runs wild in a pell-mell pageant of comedy, anxiety and artistic self-doubt.
Set in Pondicherry, A Room in India imagines a French theater company abroad, trying to create a new production in the wake of a terrorist attack back home. Responsibility falls on the green Cornélia (Hélène Cinque), who spends most of the show in bed, waiting for visions and revisions to come. Her semi-lucid dreaming yields a whirl of disparate scenes: a child being fitted with a dynamite vest, a vaudevillian gag with a fax machine, monkeys climbing through the windows, an underground Syrian theater rehearsal, a Japanese King Lear. Much of it is overtly cartoonish; a broad slapstick sketch about bumbling Islamic bombers seems like a nod to the murdered satirists of Charlie Hebdo.
Shakespeare and Chekhov make guest appearances (along with Gandhi and Charlie Chaplin), but the centerpieces of this production are gorgeously ornate musical numbers depicting scenes from the Mahabharata, performed in the Terukkuttu tradition: one in which a woman thwarts a royal rapist, another in which a warrior's wife bemoans her imagined widowhood. Rooted in local history and custom, these passages from India both contrast and merge with the magpie internationalism of the rest of the piece. A Room in India is a defense of theater in the age of ISIS, and it is acutely aware of how defensive that looks. After nearly four hours of mind-scrambling spectacle, its final image is a group hug.
Park Avenue Armory (Off Broadway). By Théâtre du Soleil. Directed by Ariane Mnouchkine. With ensemble cast. Running time: 3hrs 55mins. One intermission. Through Dec 20.