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The National Business Review – The Pickle King: Truly Magical

By: John Smythe, National Business Review

The Pickle King by Jacob Rajan & Justin Lewis, directed by Justin Lewis, at Downstage, Wellington, August 2-31 Reviewed by John Smythe

The trilogy is complete and with The Pickle King the Indian Ink Theatre Company has served up another pungent, taste-mingling sensation that is well worth bottling.

Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis formed Indian Ink in 1996 to pursue ‘the serious laugh” by devising plays with a post-modern mix of Indian culture, contemporary New Zealand life, commedia d’el arte theatrical conventions, puppetry and live music.

The first, Krishnan’s Dairy, contrasts and compares life in a Kiwi corner dairy with the romantic legend of despot Shah Jahan’s monument to love, the Taj Mahal.

The second, The Candlestickmaker, takes a young Kiwi Indian astrophysics student back to India on his OE to explore his heritage and find a point of equilibrium between the expanding light of genius and the ever-compressing black hole of mediocrity.

Now The Pickle King confronts nothing less than Death in its pursuit of life, liberty and love. In doing so, it both consolidates and extends Indian Ink’s magic realism style.

Set in The Empire Hotel, “Your taste of the Orient in Oriental Bay,” this play places its exotic dimension at the real-life centre of present-day action in the shape of a mysterious world-weary traveller who checks in as G (George) Reaper. As the pickle king of the title, it is George (Carl Bland) who poses the play’s central question: what is worth preserving?

Indian hotelier and widow Ammachy (Jacob Rajan) is trying to marry off her niece, Sasha (Ansuya Nathan), who is going blind as the result of a multinational chemical factory accident involving her school, some 21 years ago. But Shasha believes she is cursed because everything she loves dies.

This does not bode well for the lovelorn night porter Jojo (Rajan), who is living in a broom cupboard and studying to sit the necessary exams to gain recognition in New Zealand as a cardio-thoracic surgeon. Here matters of the heart are emblematic and literal; romantic and life-threatening.

In building their play on these strong dramatic foundations, Rajan and Lewis take their use of masks to a new level. Ammachy and George have minimal flesh-coloured commedia half-masks, while the emotional truths of Sasha’s and Jojo’s heart-felt experiences are focused through commedia noses in the classic serving character style.
Skilfully crafted by Justin Lewis, these masks simultaneously expose the heart of human experience and work as lie detectors, betraying the slightest failure of total commitment in performance. All three actors pass the test with flying colours.

With Krishnan’s Dairy and The Candlestickmaker, Rajan’ s dexterity in changing masks and characters is part of the show. Now, with two other actors fully involved, the focus is more on the story itself. That said, Rajan’s ability to completely inhabit his masks and become his characters with total conviction to the tips of his extremities must be acknowledged. His ruthlessly expedient Ammachy is a comic gem while his forced-to-be-servile heart doctor, Jojo, mines rich seams of comedy and pathos.

Australian actress Ansuya Nathan, found at the last minute to play the role developed by Madeline Sarni in the workshop process, is also superb. She invests the gypsy-reared, tarot-reading Sasha with a stroppy vitality that belies her deep capacity for selfless love. An exquisite yet progressively abandoned, dancing sequence speaks volumes. Meanwhile, as Basle-masked hotel guests, she and Rajan silently play out a delightfully complementary love story.

Carl Bland brings a subtle edge of menace to his well-travelled but sleep-deprived George, but in the moment where he loses the very thing that might restore his innocence and allow him sleep, I want his grief to be more profound. As if they’re not busy enough already, the quick-changing actors and stage manager Erika Sands also animate a range of objects including umbrellas, Raoul’s pet mouse, plastic bags, pot plants, a chandelier and a globe of the world. And throughout it all, pianist Graham Lipman makes Conrad Wedde’s easy-listening mood music integral to the action, on what looks like a baby grand but isn’t.

Hardly anything or anyone is as it first seems. Even John Verryt’s versatile hotel foyer set, lit by Jo Kilgour, contains a few surprises. Co-writers Rajan and Lewis, with dramaturge Murray Edmond, are masters of intrigue as they progress plots and explore themes, levitating their serious intent with light comic touches and unexpected moments of laughter and truth.

It is also a mark of their skill that once chosen, each element truly earns its keep. The infamous Wellington wind, for example, does splendid service as a satirical comment, comic device, force of chaos and life-saving twister of fate.

As for the question, “What is worth preserving?” it’s well worth the price of your ticket to discover the timeless answer anew.

Indian Ink goes public only when it believes its shows are ready. It also keeps perfecting them as the seasons progress. As it stands, The Pickle King offers a truly magical live theatre experience, and as with Krishnan’s Dairy and The Can-diestickmaker, it will mature as it grows older while each per-formance will doubtless be deliwrell fresh.

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