Thursday, August 12, 2010

Curtain Raiser of ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ at Upper Deck a Quirky, Riotous Affair

Originally printed in THE NEWS

by Osman Khalid Butt

Upper Deck Supper Club, in collaboration with Grapevine Events [headed by Tallat Azim] and NCA Department of Theatre, held a first of its kind Dinner Theatre on Saturday, the 3rd of July. The plat du jour, if you will, was a curtain-raiser of NCA’s debut production ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ by Nobel Prize winning playwright Dario Fo [adapted into local context by Sarmad Sehbai, and directed by Claire Pamment.] The star-studded evening featured Indu Mitha, Rezz Aly Shah, Sarmad Sehbai, Ali Saleem, Parveen Malik [President ASG], and Shireen Mazari, amongst others, in attendance.

The press release promised audiences a ‘hearty meal spiced with comedy and musical flourish.’ After watching the vibrant display of theatrics by actors Syeda Yasra Rizvi [who directed the stellar ‘Bench’ with Szabist], Usman Ali Khan [who recently left audiences in splits as Roger De Bris in ‘The Producers’], Mohsin Ejaz [known for his quirky characters in Kopy Kats’ productions], and debutants Aroosha Zahid and Farhan Sami, one can safely say: encore! But more on that later.

So what’s the play about?
‘Can't Pay, Won't Pay’ was originally written under the title ‘Non Si Paga, Non Si Paga’ in 1974, against the backdrop of Italy's economic crisis and a period of political radicalization and frequent strike actions. As one of Dario Fo's most performed plays, it has been adapted to many languages and contexts.

This present adaptation by Sarmad Sehbai is set in contemporary Pakistan, at a time of inflation, load shedding and downsizing. Shahana and Riaz Butt, and Saira and Navid Khwaja are neighbors in the same rundown apartment block. The cost of living is spiraling out of control, and with neither couple having paid the rent or utility bills for months, the threat of eviction is looming close. The husbands, pre-occupied with the axing of jobs at the steel factory where they both work, are unaware of the toll that taxes on home life. In order to give relief to their fragile predicament, the wives from the neighborhood lay siege on the local market, taking its stock without paying. Shahana, knowing her law-abiding husband would not condone her actions, needs to hide the 'stolen goods'. What follows is a chaotically comic sequence of events that include phantom pregnancies, shape-shifting policemen, and an original score of song and dance numbers.

The performance began with Yasra Rizvi and Aroosha Zahid moving on the ‘theatre’ space like seasoned pros; quickly establishing their characters, and aided by the fast-paced script [Desperate Housewives meets Pakistani Lower Middle-class Misfortune], they proceeded to engage the audiences with rapid-fire dialogue [featuring a deft play of words from colloquial Urdu language] with confidence and great panache. Both shared excellent chemistry; Yasra brought her character to life, and then some, while Aroosha was a revelation [leading Ali Saleem to later remark: “The debutant was exceptional; it was unbelievable the way she exuberated the confidence she did.”] The proceedings got even more interesting with the introduction of Usman’s character: the husband/wife banter [between Yasra and Usman] was played to great effect. Mohsin Ejaz, as a police-officer sympathetic to the woes of the lesser privileged, had great command over his character. The preaching became a bit overt in his scene with Usman, but the audience seemed to lap it up, enjoying every punchline. The performance ended with all the actors performing an original song, “Khayali Palao” [my favorite part, apart from the laugh-out-loud lyrics, was Farhan Sami’s little rap sequence]. The song, although just a tad bit too long, was nevertheless truly the ‘showstopper’ of the performance.

Though the performance is more than three weeks away, it seems as though the actors [especially Yasra, who was in her element throughout] are well-prepared to open, with the only glitches being a couple of silent pauses during the performance, and certain dialogues seeming too much like sermons.

Instep spoke to Yasra Rizvi to know more about her character and her experience in the play. “This particular subject is just the kind of theatre we need. It is current, socially relevant, and highly original. Shahana’s character is much more than your average scheming housewife; she is a survivor, still standing in the face of adversity. She is an example of what’s keeping the Pakistani masses alive.” She said that the creative process was challenging but rewarding, and was particularly excited about the live-singing [goodbye, lip-sync, and good riddance.] “It’s a wonderful step towards educating audiences; an eye-opener that pinpoints our own problems. It is necessary for audiences to be made aware of the problems facing the lower-middle class, and [we hope the play] generates compassion towards their plight,” she added.

Usman Ali Khan was honored to be part of a play that was adapted with the permission of the author [Another first!]. He was confident that people would enjoy the dialogue and the storyline. Speaking of director Claire, he said, “Claire is a very demanding director, but at the same time gives actors a participatory role in building [and eventually owning] their characters.”

Ali Saleem, one of Pakistan’s finest hosts, actors and impressionists, was highly impressed by the acting level of the cast. “Being an actor myself, I understand they were not on their home-turf, but they were nonetheless confident, energetic and performed very well.” Claiming it to be a wonderful teaser, he said that he now looks forward to watching the entire production.
Rezz Aly Shah found the evening enchanting, saying, “These kinds of events are important, because they promote art and the hidden talent Islamabad has to offer. [With this play,] I feel proud that young talent is coming out of my city.”

As if being the first original musical production wasn’t enough..
In collaboration with the British Council, UK scenographer Paul Burgess has designed the sets, and will be leading a number of workshops as part of the event. Tariq Ameen is the production's stylist. Choreography is by Indu Mitha, Saima Salahuddin and Fadi Gujjar. With the collaboration of the Italian Embassy, Dario Fo's protégé, the actor Mario Pirovano, who has worked with the master since 1983 and earned his admiration as a great storyteller, will be in Pakistan holding workshops, performing dramatic readings from Fo's work and engaging in dialogue with local theatre practitioners as part of the theatre event.

Instep caught up with director Claire Pamment after the curtain raiser for a round of Q&A:

Why choose Dario Fo’s play as NCA Rawalpindi’s debut theatrical production?

Dario Fo evokes the long tradition of jesters, clowns and tricksters in world theatre. With material culled from the Italian giullare jesters and bards, commedia dell'arte, Shakespeare's clowns and Molière's plays, he carries the streak of incisive social criticism found in our own legendary jesters Nasrudin, Dopiaza and Birbal. To my mind, Dario Fo is the world's most performed living playwright, not just because his themes strike resonance beyond the borders of Italy, but so do his performative modes, which celebrate comic defiance over human oppression through the liberating power of laughter. ‘Can't Pay, Won't Pay’ is an insightful take on our contemporary socio-political scene. As NCA Department of Theatre's inaugural production, the play ventures a socially relevant and high quality theatre.

In a city ruled by opulent musicals and bedroom farces, do you believe the play will click with audiences?

NCA's intention is not to follow market trends, but introduce audiences and practitioners to a range of theatrical approaches. We have incorporated original musical numbers into the play. The play is open to all... the audience's response to the curtain raiser promises its success.

How has the experience been like for you - Working with Islamabadi talent comprising of mostly youngsters?

We have so many talented young performers in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, and they need theatre training opportunities and academics. There is a need to recognize theatre as an academic discipline, not just as a hobby, which will move theatre from amateurism to professional excellence. The cast for this play has gone through a process of readings, character analysis, movement and music sessions, field research and scene practice. I feel it’s the process which is the backbone of a good production. These young actors have shown a lot of understanding and passion for this play.

The play opens at PNCA on the 29th of July, and will run till the 3rd of August. If the curtain raiser is anything to judge by, audiences are in for a subversive yet sublime theatrical production; a socially relevant message behind a clever smokescreen of unbridled comedy.

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