mind adventures

an experimental theatre company set up in sri lanka in 1999.

the daily mirror review

Vincent Poturica reviews The Travelling Circus (published in the Daily Mirror in December 2009)

The Travelling Circus in Review

By Vincent Poturica

It’s closing night for The Traveling Circus at the outdoor Nuga Sevena Theatre and the rain is falling fast and sharp.  Already beautiful and strange with trees sprouting from its center, the Nuga stage appears supernatural now that its long limbs and roots are casting even longer shadows across the tent stretched tight as a drum skin to keep the audience dry.  Unfortunately, the tent also amplifies the music of the downpour which only grows louder as the tropical storm rages above.

But the show must go on.

And thankfully it does with Tracy Holsinger (the production’s director and narrator) introducing the large crowd to the Village of Fat Hopes, located far north in a mythical jungle, where a young boy speaks a language no one understands, a language of numbers.

Like a medieval troubadour, Holsinger as the storyteller immediately alerts the audience to the Circus’ fairytale structure, a narrative frame that allows the play freedom to move between the fantasy of a Boy speaking in maths (played with passion you can feel by Ruvin de Silva) to the much darker and very real political critique of the plight of so many in Sri Lanka’s North who have been plagued by violence and forced encampment.

A post-modern fable, the Circus takes the spectator on a tour of the recent past and potential future of those who have been displaced by war, weaving a marvelous, tangled web of Island folklore, Western pop culture, ancient and recent Sir Lankan history, and striking visuals that mirrors the uneven patchwork of a 21st world.

Bright colored lights swarm and then disappear and then swarm again as the thunder of bombs shakes from audio speakers.  Guerillas and soldiers wearing colored masks strike obscene postures as they battle.   Villagers sing and waltz between caution signs warning of hidden land mines.  A Bird (played with flair and agility by Brendan Ingram) squawks, “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire!” to the blaze swallowing the Village.  A “Lying Lizard” (played with dexterity and humor by Prasad Pereira), slithers on the ground and scales a tree, croaking what could be the theme song of post-conflict denial – “Once I was incarcerated, now I am liberated – oh, jubilation – oh jubilation,” to the ashes.

This is wickedly funny, but also quite devastating as the refugees; the IDPs (renamed by the Circus, Ignored Defeated People, Innocent Deceived People, and Ignorant Disillusioned People respectively) crouch and huddle in fear of more explosions to come.  A guard (also played by Ingram) sings, ““Would you like some burning love, how about some chocolate, maybe some cholera?  Ice-Ice Baby” to the refugees as they hand over their belongings to the IDP Camp’s aptly named Director, Mad Auntie (in my humble opinion the play’s stand-out performance by young Subha Wijesiriwardena).  This is irony with a razor’s edge.

Like the ground-breaking theater of the late German dramatist Berthold Brecht (who Holsinger admits a debt), the Circus never allows its audience the comfort of falling into the easy dream of a more traditional storyline.  Rather the play assaults the viewer with bizarre songs, dances, and placards, with characters transforming into animals, forcing you to make sense of the 30-plus-years of war that finds its proper metaphor through a child’s eyes as he attempts to express the horror that he lives through a numbered language no one understands.

Later, neon panels scrawled with question marks hang from the trees.  The refugees squint and scratch their heads as they read aloud, “Is war wholesale?  Does war make an offer of hope?  Is Truth a Regugee?”  Soon the Mad Auntie arrives and in a fit of anger convicts the Boy’s uncle (played with grace and sympathy by Gihan de Chickera) as the questions’ mastermind.  We never see him again.

The Boy survives and through a series of events becomes Prime Minister.  His first mandate – a question tree in every village.  The first question, “What do you think of the current situation in the country?”

A bit heavy-handed, yes, but certainly pointed as the Circus takes a giant, giant step in the direction of a more creative, challenging, and, frankly, essential theatre in Sri Lanka.

Its greatest triumph though may have been its reception by a group of professionals from various South Asian countries, enjoying a study break from a course in psycho-social work for developing nations.  One of these students, a young Nepali woman commented, “It was very well done. The theme of being a refugee, of political repression translates to our own countries, you feel it.”  Her colleagues, a half-dozen or so, nodded in agreement.

Bravo, Circus, you have transcended geography – you have made your audience “feel” – the fundamental markings of vital art.

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