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.
In 2009, Ariane Mnouchkine and Théâtre du Soleil staged the epic Les Éphémères at Park Ave. Armory as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, asking the question “What would you do if the end of the world were imminent?” Mnouchkine and her avant-garde collective now return to the armory with the North American premiere of their latest epic, A Room in India, exploring the question “What is the role of theater and art in a world dominated by terrorism and hostility?” Directed by Mnouchkine with music by Jean-Jacques Lemêtre and Hélène Cixous and featuring a cast of thirty-five actors from around the world, the spectacle, performed in French, English, Tamil, Arabic, Japanese, and Russian (with English supertitles), explores Eastern and Western traditions as a French theater company is stranded in India and chaos descends in the form of contemporary sociopolitical issues. The production is three hours and fifty-five minutes with one intermission; to get in the mood, the armory is offering a preshow Indian meal ($30; must be ordered at least two days in advance), by chef Gaurav Anand of Moti Mahal Delux, that includes Paneer Tikka Masala, Dal Tadka, and Aloo Dum, rice, bread, naan, Indian pastries, and beer, wine, and water. On December 8 at 6:00, Mnouchkine will participate in an artist talk with Tony Kushner and New Yorker editor David Remnick. In a letter about the show, Théâtre du Soleil stirs up curiosity with a playful conversation:
“So, you’re going to put on another play about India?”
“It won’t be about India but rather will take place in India. In a room in India. That’s even the title of the play.”
“Come again? What do you mean? What happens in an India that’s not India?”
“Visions, dreams, nightmares, apparitions, moments of panic, doubts, revelations. Anything and everything that might haunt the actors and technicians of a poor theater troupe desperately in search of resolutely contemporary, political theater, a troupe stranded there by deeply moving events beyond its control, just as they are beyond our control and move us, leaving us looking for a way to face them, a way to suffer through them without resigning ourselves to adding evil to Evil through our words and our deeds.”
“And so what?”
“For now, that’s it, which is already quite a lot.”
Conference: NYIT, 1871 Broadway, $45 - $215, 8:00 am - 12:30 pm
Festival: Museum of American Finance, 48 Wall Street, $95 - $215, 6:00 - 9:00
Thursday, November 16
The Politics of Food will bring together more than 250 chefs, politicians, experts, and policy makers, examining the current state of nutrition in New York State and serving signature dishes. Held on November 16, the day begins at 8:00 in the morning at the New York Institute of Technology for a conference that includes the panel discussions “Future of food programs for NYC’s vulnerable communities,” with Barbara Turk, Donna M. Corrado, Margarette Purvis, and Joel Berg, “Legislating Nutrition and Sustainability,” with Charles Platkin, Elizabeth Balkan, Gale A. Brewer, and Kim Kessler, and “Food Dialogue with Farmers and Consumers: Common values? Common ground?” Richard Ball will deliver the keynote address, with closing remarks by Julia Turshen. The fun really begins at 6:00 at the Museum of American Finance for the Taste of Lower Manhattan Food Festival, hosted by Wylie Dufresne and boasting samples from chefs Jay Strauss, Jin Ruan, Joseph Mallol, Louis Goral, Mark Rosati, Matt Deliso, Nicolas “Nico” Abello, and Shaun Acosta and restaurants Amada, Benares, Blacktail at Pier A, Brushstroke, the Dead Rabbit, Blue Ribbon Federal Grill, Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown, Harry’s Cafe and Steak, Harry & Ida’s Luncheonette, Jing Fong, L’Appart, Pier A Harbor House, Shake Shack, the Tuck Room, and Westville. Tickets for the conference are $45 and the food festival $95, with various VIP incentives at higher prices.