- Photo courtesy of Carolina Performing Arts
- Universal stories: Nine Hills One Valley in performance
A late dispatch, from the theater of the (unintentionally) absurd: Say that a group of survivors who have witnessed, firsthand, the consequences of globalization and ethnic strife upon the rural regions of a distant country have been gathered together and flown, at great expense, to our land.
A magnificent hall is rented so they may tell the public what they know. Since their knowledge is considered precious, their appearance is advertised and tickets are sold to the event. The great night arrives. An upscale (if somewhat modest) audience takes their seats. The house lights dim; the curtain rises.
But the mood of anticipation in the room slowly changes after they walk out on stage: Someone has neglected to remove the gags that have been secured—and apparently locked in place—around their mouths.
Over the next 70 minutes, unseen hands occasionally loosen those gags, letting individual guests be understood—for 10 to 20 seconds (and up to a minute in some places, or even two)—before squelching them again.
For their part, the witnesses are not unresourceful: In the face of this obstacle, they use pantomime and stylized movements to communicate sections of their story. Still, it's clear that, under these circumstances, the group can convey only a fraction of their complicated message at best.
Actually, no muzzles adorned the actors of the Chorus Repertory Theatre of Manipur, India, during their production of Nine Hills One Valley Thursday night at UNC's Memorial Hall. But given the linguistic barricade between the performers and the audience—a barrier needlessly exacerbated by poor technical choices—the effect remained much the same for a good part of the evening.
Given the plot of director Ratan Thiyam's new theater/music/dance work, this frustrating turn proves particularly ironic.
The Maichous, a mythical group of wise men who retreated from the world after perfecting its creation, are awakened from a long sleep to find all is not in order. A chorus of women whose villages have been overturned by environmental catastrophe and ethnic schism are concluding a fruitless ritual, offering food to plaguing evil spirits in the hopes they will leave them in peace. "Why don't you hear us?" they ask. "Why don't you save your children?"
Their further slumber is disturbed by portentous dreams. The Ras Lila, a classical Manipuri dance in which a group of maids' forsaken earthy responsibilities are forgiven them because they pursued Krishna, is suddenly laid waste by a fearsome demon—Time itself, who appears in crimson and cuts the celebrants down in mid-dance with his sword. Further on, amidst a steady rain of rolled-up newspapers flung on stage, men in office chairs read a litany of disaster headlines—tellingly, in English.
The Maichous' response is striking to Western eyes. At the close of their creation, they had left behind something of a user's manual for the world; one that was encoded and placed in secret locations. Gazing on the chaos that has overtaken all, they resolve to intervene—by rewriting the book: drastically simplifying the text, placing it in terms that all men and women can readily understand.
The difficulty is that the story in this case is being told in an early form of Meitei, a language all but unknown to American audiences.
To be sure, the twin choruses of women and men deliver the extensive lines of this mythical metaphor with more than enough outrage and desperation to make their audience really want to know what they are saying. But the unconscionably stingy use of supertitles here leaves us in the dark too much of the time.
Over and over, a single sentence on screen is all we are allowed to understand from impassioned monologues and choral passages lasting several minutes. In other places, supertitled words flash on and off screen before we can finish reading them.
Nor is the cause of clarity helped when the thick accents and rapid cadence of the headline readers leave the majority of their lines unintelligible in English.
Thiyam's tale contains striking choreography and a number of vivid stage images. The labor of the women in the fields is clearly represented in the sinuous movements of the opening scene. The candles that rest in the palms of women in the final moving image convey hope in a time of darkness.
Beautiful as they are, we realize they still do not convey anywhere near the totality of what Thiyam's work is literally attempting to say. At this border of two cultures, it's ironic that dysfunctional subtitles self-censors this frustrating work, allowing too little information to cross the bridge to us.
As a result, a group of witnesses was allowed to travel the globe and appear before us. What a pity it is that they were only occasionally permitted then to speak.
If for nothing else, we must be grateful to Company Carolina for demonstrating what the Forest Theater is capable of doing—and just how long it can do it each year. Though our climate makes the venerable outdoor venue on Country Club Drive in Chapel Hill a viable performance space for eight months out of every 12, traditionally it's been chronically underutilized, hosting one or two productions each year at the most.
Company Carolina's response? Build the wall—or The Wall, to be precise; a fully-staged version of Pink Floyd's epic 1979 rock opera. Several hundred music lovers brought blankets and various forms of liquid fortification to brave last Friday night's chill. They were rewarded, for the most part, with a night of memorable music under the stars.
Keyboardist Behrooz Monstafavi led a tight and tasty band through all-but-letter perfect renditions of works like "Comfortably Numb" and "Young Lust." Notable guitarist Mitchell Harris had to be a standout when playing lead lines everybody in the audience knew by heart. Unfortunately, John Musci had difficulty mustering and sustaining stage presence in the lead role of Pink, while variant miking made characters like Linda Gomaa's Mother, the backing singers and orchestra—and the entire trial scene at work's end—only intermittently audible. It wasn't enough to ruin an intrepid evening, on the whole—but it was enough to make us want it better next time around.
There will be a next time, won't there?
E-mail Byron at firstname.lastname@example.org.