A Festival Of Renewal, Depth And Levity

By John Smythe (Theatreview Wellington)

The recurring themes in Indian Ink Theatre’s creations include the universal quests for love (Krishnan’s Dairy), happiness (The Candlestickmaker), what is worth preserving (The Pickle King), a life with meaning (The Guru of Chai) and what is worth changing (Kiss the Fish) – not to mention explorations of how fear suppresses love (The Dentist’s Chair), the environmental ‘elephant in the room’ (The Elephant Thief) and the politics of ‘progress’ and painless death (Welcome to the Murder House).

At first blush Mrs Krishnan’s Party seems to have eschewed its founding principle, of “opening mouths with laughter in order to slip something serious in”. It’s all about the party to celebrate Onam, which means “Freedom!!!” according to our host James, who fancies himself as “DJ Jimmy J!” We “get with the vibe” of the decorated room by donning colourful garlands and scarves … The enthusiasm of Justin Rogers’ James is irresistible. Who needs serious?

But it’s a shock for Zina Krishnan, to find us all whooping it up in the back room of her shop. As played by Kalyani Nagarajan her silent horror blended with a natural compulsion to be friendly towards visitors is priceless. But we are a day early for Onam and we have to go. Zina is not to be trifled with.

James believes Mrs K – widowed since her beloved Gobi was shot by an intruder (ref: Krishnan’s Dairy) – has become so stressed out over the ‘how’ of managing her shop alone that she has forgotten the ‘why’. Zina thinks James’s concept of celebration is way too superficial. What evolves from these opposing forces is involving, informative and very entertaining before it inexorably brings the quests for happiness, love and what is worth hanging into or letting go of to the surface.

Meanwhile we are guests and as such we have to be fed – so rice and dhal are prepared … As all that takes its course, Zina treats us to traditional bharatha natyam (dance) and sets about telling us the Mahabali legend that underpins Onam: the harvest festival that brings us from darkness to light.

It has to be said that on opening night at Te Auaha’s Tapere Nui – a large ‘black box’ space, configured in the traverse for this show – the actors had yet to find it ‘pitch’ so quite a lot of verbal detail was lost. Nevertheless the essence of the story comes through as the spicy aroma of what’s cooking permeates our already-stimulated senses.

Cellphones play a role too, not least in connecting with Zina’s son Apu, who is now a successful architect in India. And various truths come to light – about Apu, James, Gobi’s ashes and Zina’s plans for the shop … There’s a hint of love in the air too, for Zina – who is not above a bit of matchmaking between the audience members she and James get to help with the cooking.

Kalyani Nagarajan and Justin Rogers are extremely adept at interacting with the audience and weaving spontaneously-discovered threads through the ensuing action. The banter about the costs of renting in the ‘real’ world is especially revealing and poignant.

Overall the festival of renewal is happily honoured with depth as well as levity, the dhal and rice is delicious and those who stay to partake of it are imbued with an enlivening sense of community.