SF Theater Review: South Indian Play "Dancing on Glass"

October 11, 2010

Dancing On Glass
is a newer dramatic work written by Ram Ganesh Kamatham. This past Friday was its North American premiere, right here in San Francisco. I loved that it was a tiny production, staged at Counterpulse (a pretty swell local nonprofit) and thrown together in 3 short weeks. I love that Director Vidhu Singh met the playwright and that he, according the post-show Q&A, happily handed over his script to her. Finally, I love that the script offered us South Asian characters doing daily life, versus presenting us with another immigration narrative.

This is all stuff that, on one level, made me adore this production of Dancing On Glass. But the show also promised so much, it was hard to deliver fully. Let me back up. The plot is that characters Megha and Pradeep are involved, and Pradeep and Shankar are flat-mates. They all work in Bangalore's IT industry. When Pradeep suddenly dies, Shankar arranges his funeral while Megha disengages entirely. She doesn't even attend the funeral and keeps saying that she's fine.

For the next hour and a half, Shankar is calling Megha to make sure she's OK, Megha feels touched by his attentions, and then both of them get aroused and curious. Then there's guilt (Megha, "Shouldn't I wait awhile?") and rationalization (Shankar, "...(J)ust two people coming together in crisis!"), including a great reversal scene where Megha tries to get Shankar to dance with her while Shankar tries oh-so-hard to leave her apartment without dancing, stroking her back, or rubbing her feet. Seeing Megha's willful pursuit juxtaposed with Shankar's avoidance of his own desire is the kind of funny that gives you painful little twinges.

Such scenes were endearing. But for me, they didn't coalesce to larger effect. Admittedly, the script is difficult, first because all of the exposition takes place in retrospect. Pradeep's death is never shown, for example, and we never meet him. He's just an electronic voice that calls Megha and Shankar once, and then his death is implied by funeral talk. That's always rough, when the pivotal stuff happens offstage. We then rely so much more on the actors' skills to help us feel impact or understand nuances. Secondly, the script is even more difficult in structure, almost all monologue. So now, not only must the actors convey events that have passed, they must also demonstrate internal and external conflicts, through the facade of their characters' personalities, and all by themselves.

This is not insurmountable. Like I said, it's just hard. But in this case, the overall efforts didn't quite bridge the gaps. Shankar mourns the death of Pradeep in monologue, and then, in dialogue, he sweetly and awkwardly woos his dead flatmate's girlfriend. It doesn't make sense. The play ricochets from monologues about the ravages of the IT industry, meditations on Indian pop culture and beauty, and questions of appropriate romance, to dialogue that could be spliced out of a romantic comedy. Each and every monologue stood ground as independent social commentary. Yet again, the transitions we needed between them did not quite happen.

There are attempts at connecting metaphors, such as Shankar's mourning over Pradeep's longing for an aquarium of fish, to his sudden spastic realization that he, as a cyber coolie, is also in an aquarium. I thought maybe Shankar was sad that Pradeep wanted to have something beautiful, but that what he thought was beautiful killed him. As in, Pradeep wanted an aquarium of fish, but really, he was one of a school of neglected fish trapped in the out-sourced tech industry's viewing tank? But this is a guess. There was nothing in the overall communication of the script that made me confidently surmise that, yes, this is a connection the writer or director wanted me to make.

So in the end, I recognize that this production is entirely new and that it has plenty of time to grow. I also appreciate its obvious potential to do so (see first paragraph), and I like that I saw the play and that I had the thoughts I had. But on Friday night, I wasn't emotionally invested. Even the play's particular workplace environment, supposedly so key to the take-home of the entire story, became a mere backdrop to doomed romance. If that in itself made the characters more human, then opening night was a resounding success. But truthfully, last night I wanted more.

I'll be looking for further iterations of this play. Like I said, it promises so much. So I expect it to one day deliver.