Comments overheard at the reception after the opening night of Bombay Black at the Firehall ranged from ecstatic, to cynical, to outraged. Some raved while others railed against the playwright’s lack of understanding of the female psyche, or in some of this production’s directorial choices.
The truth lies somewhere between those extremes.
It could lie in the fact that if one is unfamiliar with the mythical legend, or legends, on which Anosh Irani’s award-winning play is based, the leaps in logic in his text are less likely to satisfy. Or maybe the words of Irani’s blinded character Kamal, “Mythology is a poor man’s diet,” justifies the suspension of disbelief.
It might also lie in director Rohit Chokhani’s choice to tell the adapted legend from the viewpoint of blind Kamal. It can be argued that it is as much, or more, that of two brutalized women sharing a toxic relationship.
Perhaps it’s a cultural divide. The reality of one action leading to a corresponding reaction is paramount in one culture and dramatic impact is more important in another.
This is Bombay Black’s second incarnation since its success at the Vancouver Fringe in 2017. The director and cast are the same, apart from talented newcomer Arshdeep Purba who plays Apsara, an exotic dancer with a savagely troubled past that is gradually revealed as the play progresses. Her vilely vengeful mother Padma, played full-out by Nimet Kanji, sells her daughter’s dancing to rich Bombay men. Padma’s bullying and her daughter’s resigned acceptance is interrupted by blinded Kamal, played sensitively by Munish Sharma, even though the script calls for a younger actor – an important aspect that might have lent more credence to the storyline.
Before the show begins, Rohit Chokhani invites the audience to don the blindfolds draped over every seat in the auditorium in order to give everyone first-hand experience of blindness. It’s as if Chokhani has taken a rehearsal exercise and developed it to make a production statement.
He also makes liberal use of blackouts to enhance his choice to focus on Kamal’s viewpoint. In fact, one of Apsara’s scenes is played completely in the dark. A conversation with lighting designer Chengyan Boon after the show revealed that this was intended to highlight shifts in her acceptance of Kamal’s point of view and that there are other instances when blackouts are intended to mark shifts in thought processes.
But when blackouts are also used liberally throughout to signify time lapses or move props and actors between scenes, their impact is dissipated in any other capacity. It also unduly slows the action of the play; to a snail’s pace in act one.
It picks up in act two when scenes, often raw and painful, are played for dramatic, sometimes melodramatic effect. Revelations of deep emotional impact are interspersed with rather obvious one-liners, thus sacrificing truth for the sake of comic relief.
Indeed, the vaudeville-style jokes peppered throughout both acts, along with their full-out-front delivery, seem laboured and out of step with the dark subject matter of the play. They earn their intended laughs but detract from the authenticity of the characters, particularly in the case of Padma, the embittered desperately jealous mother encrusted with hatred and venom. In act one they trivialize the magnitude of the wrongs perpetuated against Apsara and shroud evidence of the two women’s deep suffering grumbling like a volcano beneath the surface and foreshadowing what is to come. Consequently, both performances lack the layers of emotion that any woman who has suffered at the hands of a man might recognize and the action comes across as contrived as a result. So does the ending.
Certainly Chokhani’s bold choices are executed with courageous conviction. But this version of Bombay Black raises more questions than it satisfies.
Bombay Black by Anosh Irani. Directed by Rohit Chokhani. A Firehall Arts Centre presentation. On stage at the Firehall Arts Centre (280 East Cordova St, Vancouver) until December 15. Visit firehallartscentre.ca for tickets and information.