[Enjoy a Scoop of Life]
As audience members pack the rows of the TAPAC theatre, I take my seat beside a group of strangers for the first time in months. There’s an edginess to the atmosphere – a flurry of discussions around the recent Covid cases in managed isolation – and I flinch as the woman next to me coughs into her arm.
This is theatre in late 2020. I brace myself.
Then, we are plummeted into darkness: a richly savoured moment as I sink into the throng of electricity, unique to the anticipation of live performance. It’s a feeling I, like many others, have sorely missed.
A black space is lit by startling white. Kutisar (Jacob Rajan) is hopeless and bumbling as he wakes in purgatory. We soon learn why he can’t progress to heaven, and why he is threatened by the gates of hell. Kutisar has an unexpected history with a vulture, and the vulture is hell-bent on making Kutisar atone for moments from his past. Mesmirising as it challenges Kutisar with judgemental eyes, the puppet comes to life with squawks and soft chattering from puppeteer Jon Coddington.
Transported back to a Mumbai disco, Kutisar’s dad-dancing cements the light-hearted tone of the piece. When Kutisar meets softly-spoken Parsi Meera, Rajan’s famous character switching begins and he moves seamlessly between the two characters. With brevity and humour, Meera’s Parsi background is explained to the Kiwi audience and we learn how her cultural and religious practices differ to Kutisar’s. Having grown up in Kerela, in India’s southern-most tip, Kutisar’s Christian beliefs diverge from Meera’s – especially around death.
Meera is grieving her Baba, or grandfather. Parsis rely on vultures to strip flesh from the bodies of their dead. It has been three days since Baba’s passing, and Meera takes Kutisar on an adventure… to visit his rotting corpse.
The birds of prey – which used to fill the skies of India, Pakistan and beyond – have all but vanished. Enter Meera’s eclectic Auntie, and the unexpected threesome work together to try to bring the birds back to Bombay.
Set transitions are in the form of projections – blocks of colour and shadowy skyline silhouettes. Designers John Verryt (set), Elizabeth Whiting (costume) and Andrew Potvin (lighting) immerse us in Gudu’s world, from rooftops to Malabar Hill and the jungle beyond, and a naturalistic soundscape by David Ward is peppered with electro-infused Indian melodies.
The kulfi shop (or ice cream parlour) where Meera continues her grandfather’s legacy turns out to be a colourful but sobering reminder of the weight of familial expectation, and the play encourages a dialogue around the acceptance of death, or, as the title indicates, ‘the impermanance of ice cream.’
The heavier themes are explored with a deft touch, helped along by Rajan’s flawless transitions from character to character. His performance is masterful as he takes on the mannerisms of multiple people: wealthy cousin Farook, an expert at the natural history museum, and a menacing money lender.
Paradise at TAPAC is part of Indian Ink’s development run before the show appears at Q Theatre next year, and it will be interesting to see how it evolves. To an outsider’s eye, it seems there is little room for improvement. Rajan’s production is no doubt exhausting to perform, but effortless to watch. He is thoroughly engaging, beyond anything I’ve ever seen.
Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream plays TAPAC 23rd October to 1 November, 2020.
Directed and co-written by Justin Lewis
Written and performed by Jacob Rajan
SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Leigh Sykes