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Burmese Days

George Orwell's early novel gets an earnest story-theater adaptation. logo
Amerjit Deu, Charlotte Allam, and Jamie Zubairi
in Burmese Days
(© Carol Rosegg)
When Eric Blair was 19 he went to Burma and joined the Imperial Police Force. When he left after five years to write -- and change his name to the one the literary and political world came to know well, George Orwell -- he put his hard-nosed observations into the 1934 novel Burmese Days, which is now being given an efficient, earnest story-theater rendition by the aya theater company at 59E59 Theatres.

The work, which has been adapted and directed by company co-founder Ryan Kiggell, follows what happens when sub-division magistrate U Po Kyin (Jamie Zubairi) of the fictional northern district Kyauktada plots to ruin the reputation of Doctor Veraswami (Amerjit Deu) for reasons having to do with the election of the first Burmese native to the traditionally and jingoistically all-Great Britain club.

Veraswami's champion is the Englishman Flory (Zubairi again), who's planning to nominate his friend despite being widely discouraged. The naysayers include Macgregor (Kiggell), a Scotsman who represents the large contingent of Scots who have emigrated to Burma during the disreputable period. Nevertheless, Flory persists, just as he remains committed to wooing Elizabeth Lackersteen (Charlotte Allam) and continuing his relationship with a Burmese mistress, Ma Hla May (Elisa Terren).

As U Po Kyin works to undermine Veraswami -- bullying his underlings as well as chastising them for speaking English too properly -- and Flory proves to lack sufficient staying power, the consequences are calamitous. Incidentally, the cascade of events includes a rebel uprising that resonates today with the Arab spring.

Orwell may only have been in his early twenties when he took in all the chicanery, but he didn't miss much, conveying his beliefs with a jaundiced eye and ear. Men (read "mankind") behaving extremely badly or weakly or both and women suffering as a consequence is his theme, as is the sinister downside of colonization.

A major enjoyment of a theater piece like this is watching the six performers (including Zak Shukor, who plays numerous roles) have abundant quick-change opportunities. For example, Kiggell is the upright Macgregor in one instant and then is waving a frond and bowing as a deferential retainer. Zubairi is the evil U Po Kyin, only to become the spinelessly amorous Flory. Terren is Ma Hla May, who raves madly at her lover during one sequence but also frequently appears as Elizabeth's vigilant aunt, Mrs. Lackersteen.

The drawback of this kind of story theater, though, is that while there may be narration, certain descriptive passages are often discarded so that something indisputably valuable has been lost from page to stage.

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