What Is ‘Bhoma’?
Enigmatic Dramashop Production Leaves Us Wondering
Presented by Dramashop
April 26-29, May 3-5
Kresge Little Theatre, 8 p.m.
One might ask, what is Bhoma? In brief, Bhoma is the current Dramashop production, directed by Sudipto Chatterjee and starring Usman Akeju (’04), Albert Hung (’01), Debora Lui (’02), Anand Sarwate (’01), Chikako Sassa (G), and Kimberly Seluga (’02).
But what is it? What is Bhoma?
In some ways, it is wrong to call Bhoma a “play,” though it is certainly theater. There is no plot, no consistent character -- though there are many characters. It is more a multimedia performance, with light, sound, slides, movies, and of course acting.
The acting is, in fact, stunning -- a tour de force for all six actors. For two hours with no intermission and no time off-stage, all six give performances almost exhausting to watch: leaping over and onto set pieces, writhing in acrobatic expressions of emotion, dancing, imitating machinery, and flat-out running to every point on stage (and a few offstage).
Nor is it merely the physical aspect of the play that is so grueling. All of the actors play a variety of characters, each amazingly distinct from the next, sometimes changing from one to another in a matter of moments. Hung, for instance, is at times a mechanical typist, a sniveling farmer, and a evangelist-like peasant enthusing over the opportunity to educate his son and send him to America.
Indeed, any show with images and movies, projected onto screens in the background, runs the risk of losing the audience’s attention if the performances from the actors aren’t strong enough to maintain focus on them. Chatterjee never lets this happen; the projected images supplement the action without supplanting it, because of the performances he has elicited from the actors and a staging that is consistently active and interesting. His direction makes good use of the acting space, often positioning two actors on opposite sides of the stage, occasionally sending the actors into the audience. As a result, audience members turn from passive observers into active observers, one step away from being active participants, vital to the theme of the show.
But what is Bhoma? What is it about? What is the theme?
Well. Ah. That’s the biggest flaw with the show. Certainly the audience must be drawn in, certainly the audience must feel responsible for the injustices and horrors portrayed and the apathy about them, but to what end? Perhaps the play may be about Bhoma, who is discussed for a few long scenes, but those scenes come late in the play, and earlier scenes that mention Bhoma leave us uncertain. One of Sassa’s characters seems to have “discovered” Bhoma, but she cannot articulate what Bhoma is when pressed, and the scene shifts not long after.
Love is a recurring theme, but as a background presence and not a topic; Akeju proclaims, a number of times, “I loved a girl once,” but this always sends his listeners into gales of laughter and merciless teasing before he can explain. “The blood of fish is cold, but the blood of men is warm,” he insists at first, but when told “The blood of man has grown cold,” he comes to accept this pessimistic information.
Why has the blood of man grown cold? Perhaps because the gap between the poverty of India and the wealth of America (or even of India) looms so large; the Indian peasants seen throughout the show are at the mercy of richer people with no concern for their plight. Or perhaps because we have entered the nuclear age, when hating one’s enemies so easily translates to killing them en masse, and even peaceful uses of nuclear energy are a way of hating and attacking one’s descendants. Or perhaps ...
And this is exactly the problem with the script. For the first half of the show, it offers a grim and moving picture of the poverty of India. But at some point the focus shifts, and the production becomes harder to follow. The final effect is a little overwhelming, even bewildering; on opening night, the audience couldn’t even quite tell that the show had ended, and an uncertain silence filled the theatre until a crewmember in the back of the theatre started the applause.
This is so confusing! What is Bhoma?
Bhoma is a strong production, a technically stunning performance impossible not to appreciate. But at the same time, Bhoma is a muddled, confusing presentation difficult to understand and therefore difficult to evaluate. And if that seems contradictory and uncertain, well, that’s Bhoma.