ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 03, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 40

Inside the 'chatroom'

By Shanaka Amarasinghe

Chatroom at the British School Auditorium from February 23-25. Written by Enda Walsh, directed by Tracy Holsinger and produced by Akhry Ameer both of Mind Adventures.

Pix by Saman Kariyawasam

Mind Adventures have now produced eight productions, of which none have been boring. Some have been better than others, but all of them have never failed to entertain – sometimes spectacularly, mostly cerebrally. It is for this reason that I found myself slaloming back from Pannipitya, through the mindless hordes that call themselves motorists, in a desperate attempt not to miss a moment of Tracy's newest production – Chatroom.

But when I arrived huffing and puffing at the British School auditorium at seven minutes past eight, several would-be patrons were ambling cheerfully in with no regard to the fact that tickets said 8pm. Why are we so disrespectful? But that's another story. There I was firmly in my reasonably-priced seat to catch the third bell, thankful that I hadn't missed a minute of what promised to be only an hour-long play.

What intrigued me most in the lead up to Chatroom was the eclectic cast Tracy had assembled, and her methods of doing so. Apparently auditions were held only over the internet. The results of this process naturally piqued my curiosity. Furthermore, given the fact that all the actors were relative newcomers to the public arena, I was anxious to see some fresh talent. And I wasn't disappointed.

Chatroom, by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, is a masterpiece of wit, relevance and poignant emotion. From the opening discussion on Willy Wonka, to the conspiracy to murder of JK Rowling, to an indictment of Britney Spears, Chatroom provided snippets of the absurdly and obscurely funny. The language was sharp and the narrative fluid. In fact, it was probably a bit too fluid, as internet chat does not lend itself to the format of the exchanges. No doubt the writer had taken liberties with his chosen subject area, but the end in this instance justified the means.

The play focuses on six teenagers that vegetate in the chatroom called 'Cork's Bloody Opinionated.' Perhaps a subtle variation could have been added to locate the dialogue slightly more locally. But that's just me nitpicking. The play begins with three sets of pairs talking to each other. William (Arun Welandawe-Prematileke) and Jack (Ruvin De Silva) kick start the dialogue, followed by a separate dialogue between Emily and Eva (played by Subha Wijesiriwardena and Erasha Sugathapala respectively). The final cocooned conversation is between Jim (Brandon Ingram) and Laura (Tehani Chitty).

These three conversations lay the foundation for the play by establishing the characters and their agendas. Aside from their practical necessity to the body of the narrative, the initial 'chats' were also hilariously funny. William typifies teenage angst and rebellion, while Jack seeks recognition and acceptance while at the same time fighting the demons of his conscience.

Eva hates the world, and blames Britney Spears for her imagined misfortunes in life while Emily is a looker, who is also well meaning but doesn't quite appreciate problems for the lack of them. The characters seem to be familiar enough, without actually liking each other.

Jim and Laura begin in a different chatroom. A suicide room. Laura listens to Jim's problems without offering any advice, as this is the rule of the room. Their initial conversation is mostly carried off by Jim, with Laura being the silent listener. Brandon Ingram's Jim managed somehow to earn the most amount of laughs despite being easily the most tragic character on stage.

Debate is bound to rage as to the interpretation of his character, but he pulled off the suicidal, broken–homed, alcoholic teenager with aplomb. The only criticism being that it may have been a bit too much aplomb for one supposedly in his situation. Some comedy was perhaps born more of enthusiasm than accurate portrayal of a tragic character. Laura, a survivor of a failed suicide attempt, was played by Tehani Chitty with scary conviction.

She is non-committal, and introverted but hides beneath her icy surface a raging reservoir of emotions. Given her relative lack of lines, and the mature delivery of the few she had coupled with some outstanding acting, Chitty was easily the star performer of the evening.

Ingram too deserves credit for injecting the pathos into Jim during the final scenes. His quiet regression into himself during the evil taunting and manipulation at the hands of William and Eva was far more controlled. His breaking point was handled efficiently without a hint of melodrama. To be fair to the other actors though, Jim was the most compelling of Walsh's characters. Another performer with enormous potential is Arun Welandawe-Prematileke. He delivered the scathing, often evil dialogue written for him with a subtlety that made the audience almost fear his character. William was instrumental in signifying the unfortunate, yet ever so prevalent meanness of teenagers. Together with Eva, he formed formidable combination which thought nothing of driving one of their peers to suicide, just for kicks. With a little bit more discipline in his performances Prematileke may end up being more than a passing talent in English theatre.

Subha Wijesiriwardene and Ruvin de Silva were not centrepiece characters. Yet, they stood for the majority of teenagers. Those torn between the knowledge of right and wrong, and the constant urge to be cool. Ruvin was funny, yet he needs to grow as an actor – as do all the cast. Subha was the sort of girl other teenage girls love to hate. Tracy's casting was spot on. Again. Erasha Sugathapala was the sort of teenage girl that teenage boys love to hate.

She was someone that scours the internet for those more pathetic than herself in order to assert and affirm her own personality.

As it was only one hour long, all the characters belied their hopeful entrances by ending up slightly Dickensian. This was Walsh's fault. Nobody else's. On Friday, opening night, all the actors seemed to allow their eyes to wander.

This was distracting, but nowhere near fatal. While it was easily the funniest script I have seen performed in the recent past, the visual aspect seemed ever so slightly undercooked. The play was too short for the straight line of actors to become monotonous. However, the lighting might just have been a bit more effectively designed and executed. The music score, designed by Walsh himself, was outstanding.

Through this production Tracy Holsinger used the sandpaper of Walsh's script to craft some promising young actors. She ensured the obvious issues were not drilled into the middle of your forehead, but left invitingly on stage for the audience to pick up as they wish. Acting while confined to a chair is immensely difficult, and portraying emotion with limited freedom of movement similarly tough. Both these objectives were achieved by what was most probably an intense rehearsal process. The standing ovation that the latest Mind Adventures project received on closing night is testament to the freshness and enthusiasm that they brought with them onto stage. The performers were far above school standards even though they are barely out of school themselves. That said, they will do well not to rest on the laurels of this performance and realise that the hard work is just beginning. Laudable debuts all round.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable performance. And that is the primary function of theatre.

To entertain. As a result, I found the attendance disappointing.

This was a play that deserved full houses instead of a house that is three quarters full. It is a quirk of Colombo society that some absolute drivel plays to packed halls, while compelling theatre is largely overlooked.

Perhaps it was the trumpeting of the play as a 'teenage issues' piece that confused some regular theatregoers. Perhaps it was the parking. Who knows? Just don't make the same mistake if there is a repeat.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.