Guru of Chai: Review - Indian Ink Theatre Company

Guru of Chai: Review

By: Rev Orange Peel

Guru of Chai is an enthralling solo performance bringing an old Indian fairy tale to life. Incorporating stand-up comedy into a tale of morality and cruelty, innocence and avarice. The heart remains indestructible at the end.

Just like Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince. Mixed with slap-stick humour. It could also be the Goon Show done as theatre.

From the Indian Ink Theatre Company. The tragicomedy was first conceived by founders Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis in 2008. It was the time of the global financial collapse, and no-one was going to live theatre.

Bring the theatre to people’s living rooms. One performer to play multiple parts. It has gone on from there to widespread international critical and popular acclaim.

Lewis is the Director of this production as well as being the co-writer along with Rajan.

It is my first time to experience the play, but I sense the anticipation of much of the audience on opening night, who are acquainted with it.

Indian masala tea, chai-wallahs, professional beggars, street music, smells of sugar and spice are memories from travelling in India. I am an Indian born in New Zealand, which makes me easily identifiable as a coconut. Brown on the outside, white on the inside.

Exemplified in a throwaway line from Kutisar the Guru (Jacob Rajan). They are local Indians, give them a good price.

It is a simple stage from set designer John Verryt. Indian screens and crates holding his tea paraphernalia occupy the centre.

Rajan plays all the characters male and female.

Adam Ogle plays the acoustic guitar with Eastern overtones and sings with credible Indian phrasing. He otherwise maintains a mute presence as a sidekick.

The opening piece is pure stand-up comedy as Kutisar gives a TED talk on how he can enrich and uplift the audience’s lives of loneliness, obesity and unfulfilled dreams. He makes a sly reference to the covid Lockdowns, thereby updating the play.

The broad humour over and the play settles into a fast-paced narrative spanning many years.

Seven sisters arrive at the station platform, having been abandoned by destitute parents. They have no money even for chai, but they sing beautifully.

They are led by the youngest, Bavna, who is the most innocent and naïve. They are soon confronted with the nasty fact that they must pay a protection fee from their bucket of cash to the local Mafia.

It is a cop with a moral compassPunchkin, who takes upon himself the role of the sisters’ protector.

Rajan plays all the roles with broad and subtle changes to his voice. It does not require big physical movement. He manages this in a radio fashion, where the afore-mentioned Goons used four performers, admittedly at a faster pace.

We don’t see masks tonight, as is their trademark production style.

Rajan wears prominent gnashers, not too dissimilar in resemblance to this country’s Lockdown Prime Minister.

A red parrot is the sole puppet, and at one stage surfs through the crowd as if he was in a mosh pit.

There is sleight-of-hand magic. All this is done seamlessly. Rajan is in constant motion, and a certain manic energy is a secret ingredient in keeping us transfixed and charmed.

Theatre at this level is a type of alchemy. The magician is a mage.

The sister’s protector Punchkin rises in the law enforcement hierarchy.

Things take a darker turn. The sisters marry and leave singing for husbands. All except Bavna. What becomes of her is an odyssey worthy of a thriller.

The actor picks up the pace appropriately. The play never loses clarity.

The narrative from here is like another recent play adapted from an Indian novel, A Fine Balance. Performed in 2018 by Prayas Theatre and Auckland Theatre Company.

Where politics and Control are also smoke and mirrors, secrets and lies.

We are given the warning at the start. The Guru of Chai is an unreliable narrator, he readily admits. But he weaves a wonderful tale where smoke and mirrors are countered with alchemy and truth is revealed. In fairy tale fashion.