A play where one actor alone comprises the cast faces several challenges. The success of the play devolves, in large part, on the shoulders of that one actor, no matter how good the crew and the production values may be. For this reason, I am always interested in watching “monoacting” as it is called here.
I went to watch ‘Karl Marx in Kalbadevi’ at Ranga Shankara, on 29 June 2018 in this spirit. The underlying premise of the play is that Karl Marx comes back to life, 150 years after his death, to the Mumbai suburb of Kalbadevi; he wants to clear his name of baseless allegations of being a “Marxist”. This premise itself had me intrigued. How does a person clear an allegation as baseless when the entire stream of political thought (Marxism) is named after him?
I will return to the actor and the action of the play after mentioning other aspects of the performance. As the audience walked in, the stage was set with a chair, and a table on which several objects, such as books and bottles of water, reposed. What the audience might assume to be a lifeless dummy, lying on the floor with one leg on the chair, turned out to be the actor who rose and proceeded to perform. So the set design was simple, and helped underscore the action.
The stage was lighted, in the beginning, in the colour associated with Marx’s politics… red. However, during the course of the play, the lighting proved excellent, highlighting the actor as he moved through Marx’s various reminiscences, and helping to set the mood of the play. For example, when Marx talked about his maid being pregnant with his illegitimate child, the lighting was quite subdued; when he talked of the influence Hegel, Engels, or Gandhi had on him, it was much brighter.
The title role also did not demand much in the way of costumes, either. However, even this was made to count as the actor stripped off his jacket as the play proceeded and showed a tee shirt.
The sound design also enhanced the action of the play considerably. Ranga Shankara has excellent acoustics, and the actor made full use of the way the sound carried. The taped music complemented the actor’s dialogue well.
The direction by Manoj Shah was excellent in that it was subtle and not immediately apparent through the play. It seemed as if the actor was going through the narrative, with improvisations as and when he chose to interpolate them.
The play deals with Marx’s reminiscences of his past. With Sachit Puranik acting as Karl Marx, the audience was taken from his birth at Trier, to his days in other countries and cities… Berlin, London, and the United States. Marx tells the audience that the manager of the show has given him the chance to talk, but laid a condition that he should entertain them. He doesn’t want to entertain the audience…but yet manages to use all tropes to keep them listening. The scenes flash before our eyes, as he describes both his personal life, and his political one…from Gandhi, onwards, the people who have influenced him and shaped his thought. His penury, his difficulties in supporting his family, all these are well-described.
The turbulence in Marx’s personal life seem to mirror that of the times he lived in. As the brochure says, his words will “comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” The books and papers on the table were used to represent some of his influences, and some of Marx’s greatest works, such as the Communist Manifesto, and Das Kapital which was referred to as a “seminal work on the nature of money”.
In a play like this, it is difficult to know how much the actor follows the script (written by Uttam Goda) and how much he can ad lib his lines. Definitely, there were a lot of local references that drew a laugh from the crowd, which would change according the city the play is staged in. But Sachit seemed very much in command of the dialogue, and did not falter even once that the audience could perceive it. There were several memorable one-liners: “Gandhi is a perverted communist”, “the smallest one-word joke in China is ‘Marxism'”, and with reference to Marx’s communicating with the audience, representing the people, through his books, “I want to emancipate them, not entertain them”.
With all the technical aspects of the play being so good, there were a few points that could be improved. The first of these is the length of the play. When only one actor faces the audience all the time, the saturation point is reached rather quicker than the 90 minutes the play took; so abridging the performance would possibly deliver the message more effectively. Also, the actor asking the audience if he can go on is not something that the audience can answer in the negative! So that interaction with the audience is less of an interaction and more of a request for endorsement of the continuance of the play.
Another problem that we as an audience faced was the rambling nature of the recollections. Moving from locale to locale, from personal to political, the narrative seemed to lack cohesiveness, and I certainly was unable, at the end, to understand why Marx needed to deny any allegations, and if so, how he had done this. We certainly got the gist of Marx the person as well as Marx the political philosopher, but some amount of drift in the play could, I think, be avoided, with more brevity.
Apart from this, it was a satisfying evening of theatre, and I look forward to more productions from Ideas Unlimited.
Karl Marx in Kalbadevi
Playwright: Uttam Goda
Director: Manoj Shah
Production: Ideas Unlimited
Sound: Naman Shah
Lighting design: Shekhar Phadke
Set design: Kabir Thakore
Costume Design: Rajiv Bhatt
Before I close, I must mention that Mr Jeetendra Bhagadia, whom I spoke to at the ticket counter, was very much upset that several people were excluded from watching the previous day’s play as they arrived late, thanks to unplanned delays because of road digging near Ranga Shankara. His suggestion was the plays should have a five-minute break every half-an-hour, to allow people who were late, to join the audience. I leave it to the readers to think whether Ranga Shankara’s practice of closing the doors at 7.35pm sharp is a good one or not, and whether the suggestion made above is practically feasible.