28 November, 2008

Flying high

Sushma Joshi
Kathmandu Post

Kathmandu's annual theatre festival, started by Aarohan theatre, is awaited eagerly by theatre lovers. This year, I could only make it to one play out of seventeen. But I may have stumbled upon the one that was most different, unusual, and new to Nepal. The Circle Course, by Mira Kingsley, may have been the first time when Nepali audiences saw a female actor on stage who exhibited raw physical strength and jaw-dropping endurance along with feminine grace, emotions, and intelligence--all at the same time.
A woman moves across the stage, carrying a man wrapped across her body. Muscles tensed, she carries him across the whole length of the floor, as the audience watches in pindrop silence. The unusual scene is quickly followed by a ripple of unease as the two actors--one male, one female--take off their shirts. The feeling of sexual inappropriateness quickly vanishes as the two bodies move in perfect co-ordination, one supporting, one holding the other one up, and vice versa, through the play. Nepali audiences may never have seen a male and a female body in such close proximity, going through a beautiful dance routine without sexualizing the moment.

Amelia Earhart, a noted female aviation pioneer and author, inspired Kingsley to build the performance for the “The Circle Course.” Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. The play, built through dance, movement, sound, music, visuals and props, brings to life a world of immense altitude and ambition, a woman struggling to reach the stars while her feet are still on the ground. Kingsley's troupe, aptly, is titled “A Bit Above The Earth.” “The Circle Course” premiered in the Red Cat theatre in LA in 2005.

There is a monologue in the middle in which Kingsley reads out the letter that Amelia wrote to her new husband. Strong in tone, feminist in its orientation, the letter warns her new husband never to try and control her, and saying that she will always do whatever she wants in her life.

The delicate balance between Mira Kingsley, who plays Amelia, and Darius Manino, who plays her co-pilot Fred Nutton, was built up by the similarities that they saw in the lives of the people they were re-enacting. “Amelia was not a good pilot, people thought. It didn't come to her naturally. She had to fight hard to become who she became. And I too, when young, was not a natural dancer. I didn't have a “ballet body.” But I loved it, and I had to work hard to keep doing what I wanted to be doing. She had to do the same,” says Kingsley.

Mannino, who worked onetime at Perseverance Theatre in Juno, Alaska, says he saw many similarities between his life and Nutton (new marriages, for one), and this helped to build up the character. “I started to go on stage when Mira was doing the “Circle Course,” and I would do little improvs. And then Mira realized I should just join her in the play.” Mannino, younger and clearly less experienced in dance, complements Kingsley's role perfectly, supporting her through a myriad range of emotional and physical landscapes.

Says Kingsley: “I was fascinated by a couple of things about her. Her ambition, for one. Her ambition reminded me of America at an earlier time, when ambition still had an innocence and positivity attached to it--an innocence to doing something big. There was a time in America when a hero actually did something, instead of just being a media or pop icon. I felt a kinship with her spirit.”

The end comes with Kingsley spinning around for what feels like an exhaustingly long time. “I am getting dizzy watching her,” muttered a viewer behind me. The sheer length of time in which Kingsley spins leaves the watchers with vertigo-and by the time she stumbles out to the field of stars (made up of glasses) that her co-pilot has left out for her, we are glad to see her descend.

The audience may have benefited from knowing who Amelia Earhart was--while Earhart is a hero for American schoolchildren, she remains unknown in other countries. A rather confused explanation preceded the play, which didn't help the audience to comprehend the methodical and rich historical background research incorporated into the play. A brief contextual introduction to Amelia Earhart and her life at the beginning would have made the play much more enjoyable for Nepali audiences.

Amelia Earhart continues to be a hero for many not only because she challenged the norms and broke barriers for her own--she continues to be an icon for women and men alike because her achievement remains impressive even in this day and age. “Amelia loved what she did--and she had to fight hard for her place,” says Kingsley. This play inspires us, not only in the way it breaks conventions and norms of traditional theatre, but also in the struggle we see in the actors as well as in the ghost of the woman who inspired it.

Posted on: 2008-11-28 19:41:14 (Server Time)

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