Bangalore Mirror | The Cracks In Our Hearts Boredom and fissures in relationships take centrestage in this play by Edward Albee
Urban angst and a marriage in crisis. The two never explode on to the Edward Albee stage, but they make themselves known, nonetheless, in jittery conversation, inference and a difficulty in communication. Themes that remain relevant even over 10 years later — which is why Arundhati Raja, artistic director, Jagriti Theatre, has decided to explore them on the Bengaluru stage. The original play is Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo (formerly titled Peter & Jerry) after the addition of a first act (called 'Homelife') to his 1959 play The Zoo Story. It revolves around the marriage of Peter and Ann and ends with Peter leaving to go read a book in Central Park.

Calling Albee one of her "favourite playwrights", Raja says the play was on her list of "sometime in the future" ever since she learnt of his addition to the script. She approached it in the same way she approaches all her work: reading the script several times and working on it extensively with the actors on script and character analysis.

She is vehement that it is not an adaptation, "If I feel that a script isn't going to work for any reason, I wouldn't do it as a production. I do not believe that the audience needs to be spoon fed with superficial Indianisation," she says. Which is why At Home at the Zoo, even though it is set in New York, doesn't mar the audience's understanding of what's going on. "One character lives in the Upper East Side and the other in Upper West Side of Manhattan. It matters not a jot if you don't know where these places are because all you need to know is that there is a great socio-economic divide between these two areas and that is brilliantly brought out in the dialogue." 

And it is not a work about a dysfunctional American marriage, though it might be tempting to see it as such. Raja believes it is about "relationships anywhere". "The boredom one might achieve in any relationship, about the desire of one in the relationship wanting to shake up the status quo, make life more exciting, dispel the loneliness, reach out to another human being. Can't get more universal than that!" is her reasoning for its aptness for an Indian audience. 

The original play remains a wildly popular classic, even though it was rejected by American theatres and was finally performed in Berlin, "happily for Albee, alongside Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. The addition of a prequel that finally satisfied Albee with his exploration of the subject only adds more complexity. Raja agrees.

Recalling how Albee wrote The Zoo Story in 1958, at a time when he was influenced by Samuel Becket whose genre of the Theatre of the Absurd was just beginning to gain popularity, she believes Albee "brings in humour and pathos and doesn't quite make his characters in the Absurd fashion". She adds, "He had always felt that the character of Peter who is found sitting on the park bench by Jerry, was not fleshed out enough. There wasn't enough known about him — why would he sit and listen to the ramblings of someone like Jerry who approaches him in the park, someone so far removed from his everyday life? Why doesn't he just get up and go at the beginning? So he finally wrote Homelife in 2004. We see Peter at home with his wife and what happens there to send him to the park in the first place. Albee has cleverly set Peter up for the second act."

In her interpretation, Raja, wanting the play to flow smoothly from one act to the other without an interval or a long blackout in order to keep Peter's journey seamless, has kept the set more or less "composite", "with just the single two important pieces, the sofa in Act One and the park bench in Act Two being interchanged". Which is exactly what the stark white and black design by Rebecca Spurgeon captures, while the lighting design does the rest. "White cold light in the house to a bright sunny day in the park. I have used Philllip Glass's haunting music to help it all along." Peter is played by Roy Sinai, Ann his wife, by Vandana Prabhu and Jerry by Swetanshu Bora. She describes them as "talented, thinking, hardworking actors", a necessity in a work as difficult as Albee's. As she explains, "Two actors talking relentlessly at each other, taking the audience through the highs and the lows with no let up, is no mean feat." 

She hopes the audience, in addition to being riveted, won't be able to stop thinking about their own life. After all, isn't that what theatre does — hold up a mirror to life? "Topics such as urban angst, marriage crises, self-confidence and loneliness are universal in time and place. These topics can never be over explored because they are about life. Playwrights of Albee's calibre hold this mirror up brilliantly. His characters and his dialogue are beautifully etched, easily identified with - timeless," she says.

Attempting such a work has also been an exercise in self-affirmation, in this day and age of instant gratification. "Plays by older, classic playwrights are usually not attempted these days; they are looked at as 'text' heavy. But it is the novel or a textbook that has text. A play has none. It has dialogue - conversations between people. That's how theatre has remained alive for centuries in spite of regular prophecies of doom."

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