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G.R. Johnson and Susham Bedi in Kalighat
(Photo © David Gochfeld)
There are some promising ideas and worthwhile subject matter in writer-director Paul Knox's Kalighat. The play deals with the intersection of religion and homosexuality in an intelligent manner, although it is less successful in its attempts to address issues of race. Overall, however, the three-act work is much too long; it needs some serious editing and more compelling dialogue.

Set in Calcutta, the play revolves around a group of white volunteers from Western nations who come to Kalighat, Mother Teresa's first home for the dying in Calcutta. The central character is Peter (G.R. Johnson), a young, gay, white male from New York; he has come to India as a way of dealing with his lingering guilt for abandoning his lover, who died alone in a hospital when Peter was too tired and upset to visit. But Peter is not the only one running away from something: Sydney (Giuliana Santini), a young female Canadian volunteer, comments early on that, when she first arrived at Kalighat, she actually thought she would be helping people other than herself. The other volunteers seem equally troubled by guilt or are seeking to discover something inside of themselves through their work with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity.

This is not to say that the volunteers don't care for the patients they oversee; far from it. Personal connections are forged, and it is clear these people are good at what they do and that the work they perform is needed and appreciated. The playwright does bring in critiques of the missionary work, such as the fact that the policy is to reuse needles for injection without sterilizing them, which can allow for the transmission of AIDS and other diseases. However, Knox seems more interested in focusing on the complexities of economic scarcity and religious duty in relation to the problematic approach to medicine. A speech late in the third act by Sister Mark (Susham Bedi) acknowledges the less-than-pristine conditions under which the volunteers work and the fact they do not always conform to the standards of Western medical practice; but, she argues, some things must be taken on faith.

Peter is not big on faith, although the play is fairly even-handed in regards to that subject. There are characters who take extreme positions, such as an Englishman named Philip (David Mason). At first, he comes across as narrow-minded, believing in only one correct form of Christianity. But in observing Peter's rather promiscuous sexual adventures as well as his committed devotion to the patients, Philip is forced to question his own spiritual beliefs and confront his repressed homosexual desires.

Unfortunately, the characters tend to speak as types or philosophical positions rather than flesh and blood people. They spout rather clunky lines such as Philip's explanation for why he volunteers at Kalighat: "I came to touch the bleeding heart of Jesus." While the line is probably intended to be humorous, the seriousness with which it is spoken produces groans rather than laughter. The dying patients don't fare much better in the dialogue department; in fact, some of what they have to say is far worse. "I can be houseboy for you," states Salim (Rizwan Manji) in an attempt to convince Peter to take Salim with him when he goes back to America. The line is blatantly offensive and made only slightly less so by the actor's playful tone while delivering it.

There are moments of greater self-awareness of racial attitudes within the text. Peter befriends Ram (Eliyas Qureshi), who offers the young American advice. This prompts Peter to say that Ram sounds like a guru, to which the older man responds: "You would sound like a guru too, Peter, if you had an accent like mine." The line nicely ruptures the condescending naiveté that all of the volunteers seem to share.

The play's primary difficulty is that its sprawling narrative tries to cover too many secondary plots that ultimately lessen the impact of the work as a whole. For example, there is a romance involving Klaus (Tyler Pierce), a German volunteer, and Sister Jane, a young novice in the order. At the performance I attended, the latter role was played by Nandita Shenoy, a last minute fill-in for the absent Poorna Jagannathan. Impressively, Shenoy -- who was not even an understudy and was called in to take the part earlier that afternoon -- barely glanced at the script that she carried with her on stage and portrayed the character with an endearing charm.

That said, the subplot adds little to the play and could probably be cut without losing much. The third act drags on and on, primarily because each plot has a separate narrative closure; scene after scene consists of characters saying goodbye to each other. Inexplicably, Knox has also staged a couple of dance sequences within the play, choreographed by Myna Mukherjee. While not badly performed, they are also not integrated into any of the numerous plots and, therefore, they end up seeming extraneous.

The acting is uneven at best. Johnson is serviceable as Peter throughout most of the play but is unable to tear into the character's more emotional moments without making them come across as overly melodramatic. Pierce, as Klaus, has one of the worst German accents I've ever heard on stage and fails to make his character very engaging. As Sister Mark, Bedi possesses a strong physical stage presence, but her vocal delivery is plagued by an overuse of pauses. Additionally, a slap that she delivers to another character is performed listlessly and fails to have the emotional impact that was probably intended.

The play is reportedly based on the writer-director's time at Kalighat. Some of the better-written moments concern the volunteers describing in detail the things that they have seen or experienced in their work. Kalighat is presented as part of MELA: A South Asian Festival at Baruch Performing Arts Center, and it's a worthwhile attempt to address subject matter that's not often seen in the theater. However, Knox hasn't managed to forge a dramatically compelling play out of his real-life experiences.

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