One of the true joys of experiencing anything at the Park Ave. Armory, from film and dance to music, theater, and art installations, is to see how the spectacle-driven institution has reinvented itself for its latest production. Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford’s Macbeth took place in a narrow stone-bounded pathway that turned to mud. Audience members were encouraged to walk around the space to fully immerse themselves in Shen Wei’s Undivided Divided. And visitors could have fun on large swings in Ann Hamilton’s The Event of a Thread. Ariane Mnouchkine and Théâtre du Soleil’s epic four-hour A Room in India, running through December 20, does not disappoint. Upon entering the armory, guests are wanded by the Great Police Security Brigade, guards wearing fanciful uniforms. In one of the period rooms, attendees who preordered dinner sit down for a buffet-style meal by chef Gaurav Anand of Moti Mahal Delux. (During intermission, free chaat, masala peanuts, wine, and water are served as well.) Inside the massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall, you’ll first come upon an open dressing room tucked under the seat risers, where you can talk to the performers as they are getting ready, applying makeup and getting into costume. To the left is a bookstore, while to the right is a carpeted and pillowed area where some of the actors prepare with vocal exercises about fifty minutes before showtime and which ticket holders are invited to watch. The long, deep set is on the east side of the hall; the audience seating rises on the west. Even the program is unique, a booklet packed with information, including inspirational quotes and excerpts from the main character’s journal. “It was as if we were refugees from history,” Cornélia writes. “All about our bedroom, the times had been unleased. We wondered what would become of us, we wondered what to call this, this chaos.”
A Room in India is chaotic indeed, but wonderfully so, with a decidedly feminist take on the state of the planet, especially one lacking in legitimate, compassionate leadership. A theater company is in India for a performance when its leader suddenly has a manic episode and quits the troupe, leaving his assistant, Cornélia (Hélène Cixous), in charge, to her surprise and dismay. The entire play takes place in the same enormous room, in which the furniture is constantly being moved around and changed save for an ever-present bed, where Cornélia sleeps; it is often difficult to know which scenes are really happening and which are Cornélia’s (Freudian?) dreams and nightmares come alive, often spurred by telephone calls from the company’s administrator, Astrid (Thérèse Spirli). Mnouchkine, who was previously at the armory with Les Éphémères in 2009 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, throws just about everything she can into the mix as she explores the responsibility that theater has both to inform and entertain, shining a light on society’s ills and thrills; among those making an appearance are Shakespeare (Maurice Durozier), King Lear (Seietsu Onochi) and Cordelia (Man-Waï Fok), Mahatma Gandhi (Samir Abdul Jabbar Saed), Anton Chekhov (Arman Saribekyan), the God Krishna (Palani Murugan), and Charlie Chaplin, along with bumbling police led by Lt. Ganesh-Ganesh (Omid Rawendah), local mobster S. S. Loganathan (Duccio Bellugi-Vannuccini), monkeys (Seear Kohi, Saribekyan) who can’t believe what evolution has wrought, a holy white cow (Ghulam Reza Rajabi or Saribekyan), a pimp (Rawendah), the Taliban, and rickshawallahs. Torture alternates with farce, including a riotous Terukkuttu scene of a film being made in the desert. Two sections from The Mahābhārata are presented. Meanwhile, Jean-Jacques Lemêtre’s entrancing music is played in a separate room stage left by Ya-Hui Liang and Marie-Jasmine Cocito. Mnouchkine — whose father, Alexandre, produced such films as Jean Cocteau’s L’Aigle à deux têtes, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose, Philippe de Broca’s L’Homme de Rio, and Claude Lelouch’s Un homme qui me plait — doesn’t seem to have an “off” switch; the show does not need to be four hours long, as there is repetition and various needless moments, but Cixous is so delightful as Cornélia, and the cast of thirty-five is having so much fun, that you might not really care that much about the shortcomings and instead just revel in the daring, exhilarating spirit of the superb production as a whole.