“If all theatres were demolished tomorrow, would anybody miss them, and for how long?”

Several characters said that at different times throughout A Room in India, a theatre piece that had a run last month in New York at the Park Avenue Armory.

One could take this as an ironic comment, because the show, devised by the Parisian-based company Théâtre du Soleil, was a gorgeous, ambitious, and almost literally overwhelming argument for theatrical vitality—a four-hour scattershot variety show of theatrical genres, styles, and tones. These ranged from modern absurdist comedy, melodrama, and cartoonish political satire to Japanese Kabuki and extensive scenes from the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata. Both Shakespeare and Chekhov also made an appearance—two of more than 100 characters, performed by ensemble members reportedly of twenty-six nationalities, speaking six languages (accompanied by English surtitles.)

And yet for all the richness of theatrical expression from the past and present, the anxiety about theatre’s future was threaded throughout the piece, reflected even in the printed program, a sixty-five-page booklet that, like the show itself, offered something of a collage. It read at times like a diary written by Ariane Mnouchkine, the seventy-eight-year-old director who co-founded the esteemed avant-garde company fifty-four years ago.

Farid Gul Ahmad
Farid Gul Ahmad in Park Avenue Armory’s presentation of A Room in India. Photo by Stephanie Berger. You can view more production photos at NewYorkTheaterMe

From page four, a description of what’s on stage:

Visions, dreams, nightmares, apparitions, moments of panic, of doubt, of revelations. Anything and everything that might haunt the actors and technicians of a poor theatre troupe desperately seeking a resolutely contemporary and political theatre, and stranded there by deeply moving events beyond their control…

There was a slyness to this passage, placed in the program as if written by hand. The “poor theatre troupe” is not Théâtre du Soleil, but another French company, unnamed and fictional, and they are stranded not metaphorically but literally. The founder of this company, a man named Lear, is too upset about recent terrorist attacks in France to join his performers, as he promised to do, while they are on tour in rural India to research the origins of theatrical tradition. He telephones his "bewildered poor soul” of an assistant, Cornelia (hilarious Hélène Cinque), and tells her he’s abandoning the company and that she is in charge. Cornelia has to come up with a new piece to perform, and, having never helmed anything, feels unequipped to do so. That's the frame/excuse to offer a widely divergent catalogue of scenes that Cornelia is supposedly dreaming up while staying, yes, in a room in India. She occasionally sits at a laptop, but more often she sleeps in her bed in the guesthouse in Pondicherry of Madam Murti (Nirupama Nityanandan), while the cast performs what Cornelia is dreaming.

The eclectic goings-on she imagines have little in common with one another except that, even at their most surreal—large brown monkeys charging through the sun-streaked windows of Cornelia’s guest room—they reflect the danger that confronts the world. In one scene, a young boy is being fitted with a dynamite vest. In another, a company member leads Cornelia to an underground bunker to show the wars being fought over worldwide water shortages. In a third, a woman fights off a rapist.

Seear Kohi, Arman Saribekyan and Hélène Cinque
Seear Kohi, Arman Saribekyan and Hélène Cinque. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Terrorism, climate change, the subjugation of women.

Is theatre equipped to confront any of it?

That’s the question underlying A Room in India for theatre artists. Cornelia and the others on stage ask variations of this question consistently, if at times whimsically. One young actress complains bitterly and at some length that her grandparents weren’t Holocaust survivors; her parents didn’t divorce; she’s never been ill; her entire family has perfect teeth and 20/20 eyesight; “how can I be an actress with all this happiness?”

Another says: “I fear theatre will not exist in one hundred years, or even in ten.”

 “Can we expect a new Shakespeare, a new Homer?”

Cornelia is awoken regularly, interrupted by telephone calls from Astrid, presumably her daughter (which cause whatever scene is unfolding to cease abruptly, the players scattering off-stage, back into Cornelia’s head.) Astrid always has bad news to deliver. Lear, the company’s derelict founder, has gone mad, like his namesake. The French government is investigating the company’s finances, questioning why they should exist at all.

And then there is always one stranger or another asking: If all theatres were demolished tomorrow, would anybody miss them?

Mnouchkine and company are not the only theatre artists filled with doubt, and trying to hold off despair. They do not pretend to have the answer. But A Room in India was not just a fitting downer to end a down year.

The Lear of the play, whom we never actually see, may go mad. But Cornelia carries on. In the end, this supposedly unimaginative assistant has indeed created all these works—and not just in her imagination…in ours as well.

Seear Kohi, Omid Rawendah, Andrea Marchant, Ya-Hui Liang, Marie-Jasmine Cocito, Palani Murugan, Quentin Lashermes
Seear Kohi, Omid Rawendah, Andrea Marchant, Ya-Hui Liang, Marie-Jasmine Cocito, Palani Murugan, Quentin Lashermes in Park Avenue Armory’s presentation of A Room in India. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

There is also the start of an answer to that nagging question of theatre’s usefulness in the very building in which the show was presented—the massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory. It was built in the nineteenth century as both a military facility and a social club. Last year it celebrated its tenth anniversary as a nonprofit cultural center. It seems an inspiring coincidence that the Parisian home of the peripatetic Théâtre du Soleil La Cartoucherie is a vast former munitions factory. It’s as if they’re saying that theatre, too, can be a weapon. But it’s best considered—dare I be so schmaltzy?—as a weapon of love.

Neuroscientists recently backed this up:

Scientists monitored the heart rates and skin response of selected audience members at a live theatre performance of Dreamgirls, the Tony and Olivier award-winning musical, in August this year. It found that a dozen members of the audience responded in unison through their heartbeats, with their pulses speeding up and slowing down at the same rate as each other.

The neuroscientists’ findings led playwright Ayad Akhtar to wax eloquent about “the theatre’s timeless magic” as an antidote to our domination by all things digital, rhapsodizing “…this sense of oneness with an audience, of losing all sense of time, of absorption in the travails and triumphs of the living actors.”

There are new studies to determine whether the arts can help people heal, and new grants to explore whether the arts can foster empathy and compassion “to affect positive social change.”

 Théâtre du Soleil eschews sentimentality and avoids science. They make the point far more bluntly. At one moment in A Room in India, a thug (Duccio Bellugi-Vannuccini) repeated the question that’s more of a taunt, to the Japanese King Lear (Seietsu Onochi)—"If all theatres were demolished tomorrow, would anybody care?” The actor took out his samurai sword, and stabbed the thug. Then he calmly put the sword back in its sheath, and said: “Those who say that theatre isn’t essential, we’ll pulverize them.”

Jonathan Mandell’s NewCrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of each month. See his previous pieces here.