For two weeks only, from Dec. 5 to 20, the Park Avenue Armory hosted the latest creation by the French experimental theater company Théâtre du Soleil, A Room in India. The theater production was collectively devised by the entire troupe into a sprawling, yet coherent epic of theater, religion, first-world identity and creative apparitions.
A Room in India is not the first such creation by the ensemble, led by the venerable Ariane Mnouchkine, but it is perhaps the most personal creation for the company. Mnouchkine launched the work by imagining a French theater company like themselves, stranded in a foreign country with a mission to put on a piece of theater for the locals.
Inspired by the company’s visits to India, the work takes that premise and completely rearranges the questions it attempts to ask, with often endearing answers.
The story takes place within a room in a hotel where Cornélia, played by Hélène Cinque, has been trapped after her boss, the famous director Constantin Lear, voiced by Vladimir Ant, goes completely mad and destroys his own travel documents.
Stuck in the Tamil Nadu region with no idea of what to do, Cornélia is tasked by Lear to create a perfect piece of theater about women, using the local Terukkuttu style as the method of staging. Cornélia, however, has never directed anything in her life, let alone an entire production.
Now the task has fallen to her to complete Lear’s vision as he goes off naked, speaking exclusively Japanese and praying to the legendary French dramatist Antonin Artaud as a deity. Suffice to say, Cornélia has a Herculean task ahead of her that no one would envy.
While the play does take place within the titular room, the world outside continuously creeps inward from a myriad of times, places and cultures as Cornélia searches through every inspiration to come up with a vision for the work. In the village beyond, the gangster S.S. Loganathan, played with a gleeful menace by Duccio Bellugi-Vannuccini, terrorizes Muslim villagers with his vitriolic blend of Hindu nationalism and outright sadism. A vision of William Shakespeare, brought to life by Maurice Durozier, casually enters the room, quoting his own work to inspire Cornélia. Scenes from the Mahabharata, one of the most important Sanskrit epics, play out in the corners of Cornélia’s mind in order to guide her to a greater idea. The hotel becomes a magnet for memory, love, justice and the power of art, channeled through an increasingly baffled assistant who could not direct a sloth if her life depended upon it.
Yet, Cornélia’s life, and indeed those of everyone else, do depend upon Cornélia creating something. The visions she encounters take her all across the world, from a Syrian theater company that still performs Shakespeare under the ravages of the Syrian Civil War, to a group of Saudi princes attempting to improve their country’s reputation in the world.
To Cornélia, her mission grows from simply fulfilling the task Lear provided to creating a work of importance that reminds people why theaters should still be left standing and why the women behind those theaters and everywhere else, deserve to be seen and respected. All being said and done, there is plenty to fill in the performance’s nearly four-hour runtime. The show is a worthy, heartfelt ode to trying one’s best in an increasingly depressing, violent world where hope seems to die every time a gun is fired.
However, for a theater company that has devoted itself to creating theater for the people, the decision to host this show at the Park Avenue Armory cannot help but seem a tad baffling. The Armory, for all its merits as one of the city’s most important arts institutions, is not exactly an institution for the people.
Its audience is unfortunately one that has the financial means to see their grand, all-encompassing productions, which means the tickets are not cheap or easy to obtain. For a work that is most certainly devoted to the common person’s ability to change the world, the people who saw the show were likely not quite common.
Perhaps that was the point, though; to bring a work of the people’s theater to an audience somewhat out of touch with what so many people go through. After all, it would not be expected for the audience that came to see the New York premiere of this devised French epic to have experienced the horrors of war, fatal-yet-preventable illnesses and mass starvation. By sitting in that room in India, maybe they could experience all the terrible things that they only see on the news just for a moment, and empathize with the reality of the outside world. After all, the world encroaches on people when they least expect it, terror and all.