by Lynn on May 12, 2011

in The Passionate Playgoer

Mina James as Amal (seated) surrounded by the cast

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs. Written by Rabindranath Tagore. Translation by Julie Mehta. Directed by John Van Burek. Set by Teresa Przybylski. Costumes by Milan Shahani. Choreography by Hari Krishnan. Musical composer and director, Debashis Sinha. Lighting by Robert Thomson. Starring: Mina James, Patricia Marceau, Sam Moses, Errol Sitahal, Dylan Scott Smith, Sugith Varughese, Jennifer Villaverde.

Produced by Pleiades Theatre.

The Post Office was written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1911. It’s about Amal who is a sickly boy and no one knows the cause or even what really ails him. His family frets. The local healer, who has been treating him, has recommended that the boy be kept indoors and under no circumstances be allowed outside. So the boy sits by the window looking out onto the street watching the passing parade. He befriends some of them who stop to tell him of the outside world. The Watchman who announces the time by hitting a gong suspended from his waist; the Curdseller describes a beautiful place in the mountains; Suda describes where she gets her flowers that will then be sold by her family.

An Old Man tells him stories. Amal is particularly interested in the Post Office across the street. He is told the king owns it and is the one responsible for the letters. Amal dreams of many things while confined. He dreams of going to the mountains described by the Curdseller when he is older and better. He dreams of going on the rounds with the Watchman. He dreams most of all of getting a letter from the king.

Amal charms everybody. His curiosity about their lives; his enthusiasm about their stories; his willingness to dream makes them stop, talk and appreciate his innocence. But he still deteriorates until a transcendent miracle of sorts takes place at the end of the play.

Director John Van Burek begins and ends the production with a dance in the Indian tradition, choreographed by the gifted Hari Krishnan. There is also a popular contemporary Bengali song inspired by Tagore that is sung at the end. The dance and song along with Teresa Przybylski’s spare but evocative set and Robert Thomson’s lighting give the play a sense of its otherworldliness.

Amal is played by Mina James—I’m not sure if it’s in the script or Indian tradition that a woman play the young boy, or if this is purely John Van Burek’s fancy, but it is intriguing. Ms James plays Amal as a wide-eyed enthusiastic innocent. He has faith and hope that he will improve. He trusts his new-found friends will return to his window to tell him of news of the world. It’s a performance full of conviction and enthusiasm.

Certainly from a Western point of view plays from India seem otherworldly. There is a formality to the language; a mysticism. From the program we learn that Tagore was prolific and respected internationally. The Post Office has been performed all over the world; translated into 40 languages; and this production marks the first professional production in Canada.

For all of the popularity of Tagore’s plays, even in India they were considered unique and outside the traditions of Indian art. And here The Post Office brings its own challenges. The story telling is almost static—nothing really happens. People come to Amal’s window; he asks questions about them and where they come from; and they reply and leave. He muses on what they have told him while deteriorating in health. The pace seems deliberately slow.

Our western theatre tradition is livelier; more action is packed into the story; we expect snappier repartee. It would be unfair to judge The Post Office and its traditions on the basis of our own western tradition. That would be like going into an Indian restaurant; ordering Indian food and complaining because it’s not like western cuisine.

John Van Burek is a theatre force of nature. He founded Théâtre français de Toronto 43 years ago. He was the first to translate the plays of Michel Tremblay from French into English. His present company Pleiades Theatre is devoted to bringing great works from the international repertoire to Toronto. As such for example he has produced and directed plays by Molière; plays from Commedia dell Arte from Italy, and two great works from the Indian repertoire, of which The Post Office by Rabindranath Tagore is one. It certainly is a different kind of theatre. I am glad of the rare opportunity to see it.

The Post Office plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs until June 4, 2011.

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