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Shaheen Vaaz in On Caring for the Beast
(Photo: Annette Alvarez)
"People have pain for many reasons," says Dr. Narayan (Sean T. Krishnan) in Shishir Kurup's On Caring for the Beast. "It's part of growth." The play centers around Atiya (Shaheen Vaaz), a novelist interviewing Narayan, an exiled "doctor of torture" who oversaw the so-called "interrogation" of dissidents in Bihar, India.

Kurup creates characters and situations that are distorted fragments of each other, reflections in a mirror that highlight the darkness within a person and, paradoxically, that individual's hidden strengths. After hearing Narayan's descriptions of torture, Atiya becomes convinced that she would have been different, that Narayan would never have been able to break her. She enlists her boyfriend Sean (Andy Brown) in sadomasochistic games with the goal of finding the way to transcend pain and transform it into something else.

A secondary storyline revolves around Charlie (Greig Sargeant) and Art (Sanjiv Jhaveri), a gay couple who are friends and neighbors of Atiya. Art is obsessed by a news item about a Filipino faith healer who claims that everyone is capable of performing similar miraculous feats. Art is convinced that he can rewire the circuits of his body and cure his terminally ill lover. Interestingly, he is not portrayed as the most attentive of boyfriends; he lets little things slip, and Charlie is often seen painfully performing routine household duties while Art is absorbed in his own thoughts.

At times, the writing is sparse and direct; at other times, it becomes overly wordy and laden with unnecessary explanatory passages. Sean delivers a second act monologue that tells more than it shows. His actual character development is found elsewhere in the play, particularly in his increasingly dangerous games with Atiya. Similarly, Charlie has a soliloquy in the first act about being a pacifist and killing ants. The speech is completely disconnected from the character's primary conflict, even if it does riff on some of the play's main themes. Kurup is obviously trying for a lyrical meditation on pain, pleasure, and morality; however, the effort is often too heavy-handed to be effective.

For some reason, director Kiran Merchant has the actors in each scene enter at the tail end of the previous scene. This is quite distracting, particularly since the weight of the actors' bodies on the stage platforms creates a creaking sound. In addition, the play maintains a slow, measured pace that often undercuts the dramatic tension. An exception to this is the frenzied, split-scene climax of the play, which goes so quickly that its difficult to register the conclusions to all of the characters' stories.

Despite these flaws, there is much to admire in this production. For one thing, it features a strong cast. Vaaz shines as Atiya, conveying a world of emotion and character with a small smirk or a regal stance. Krishnan effectively underplays Dr. Narayan, his soft voice adding a disconcerting charm to the doctor's graphic descriptions of torture. Jhaveri is hilariously obsessive as Art, displaying a bookish manner that barely hides the character's desperation.

In addition, Achinta Sawhny's choreography nicely combines modern movements with touches of classical Indian dance. Sawhny leads a chorus of four female dancers to create a sensuous and, at times, startling counterpoint to the play's obsessions with pain and torture.

On Caring for the Beast is the inaugural production of the newly formed Disha Theatre, a company dedicated to works by South Asian artists. As a fledgling effort, it far exceeds work by several more established groups. The production values are relatively high, with a beautiful set by Susan Barras and haunting sound design by composer Chris Webb. The company has enormous potential; hopefully, future productions will capitalize and build upon the strong foundations established here.

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