For more than two decades, Studio 7 has offered audiences the most intimate theatre experience in Kathmandu. Like vernal fruit, its annual plays held at the Hotel Vajra have become a part of our spring calendar. This year's offering, Babu Raja, a tragic-comedy adapted from Coline Serreau's Lapin Lapin, examines the struggles of family life. The anchor character, the never-failing Mama (Ludmilla Hungerhuber), leads her troubled family through the crises of a troubled age, with each of her adult children returning home after giving up on or being chased from turbulent outside existences.
Reflected in this drama are the tragic failings of any family member, accentuated in Babu Raja by their coincidence with a surreal and unstable political climate. Each character has his or her own could-have-been story, with the culpability for unhappiness divided in varying degrees among individuals' situations, quirks of personality, and larger circumstances. On the one side are the daughters Maya (Johanna Wernicke-Rothmayer), who leaves her husband because he poses an unforgiveable request to her over a caf? meal ("please pass the salt"), and Lula (Shahini Singh), who abandons her fianc? Toni (Saroj Dangol) at the alter for what appear to be petty domestic reasons. On the other side are the stormier, more complex personalities of the first two sons, Sunni (Eelum Dixit) and Hari (Mangal Man Maharjan), who respectively get caught up in gun-running and bomb plots. In the end, the play is less about the struggles of each character than about how to survive as a family, with ample doses of humour, life's most annoying and taxing situations.
The family's chances for survival and its ability to arrive at answers to the questions that vex it receive a boost from the outside - in this case, the third son and eponymous character, Baburaja (Salil Kanika). This science fiction-obsessed young man is truly an outsider, having been implanted in Mama's uterus by a space race conducting projects among humankind. The angelic Baburaja, however, does possess many of the answers, leading one to wonder how the arrival of a benevolent insider-outsider might help in solving life's tribulations. Vested with the most humane of human attributes, he helps keep tempers down. Being the youngest, he deserves, in Mama's eyes, the freshest bread- evidence of maternal doting and favouritism that sits uneasily with the already troubled putative medical student Sunni.
The Rajas, living in their increasingly cramped one-and-a-half room apartment, look to the leadership of the loving, shopping and all-around archetypically maternal Mama. Hungerhuber brings to life this strong central character with a self-assuredness arising from her lengthy experience on the Studio 7 stage. Temperamentally Mama's opposite, the mysterious, explosive Sunni serves as another pole in the family, leading a double life divided between being the "strong as concrete" next-in-line bread winner and his underground activities. Father (Rajendra Shrestha), at times aloof and constantly tired, wants to succeed for his family but instead is forced to break the news of his firing from a low-paying coat-and-tie job. The middle son, the gentle and nervous Hari, bursts into the family abode and back into family life a few steps ahead of pursuing police, shattering the belief that he is in Dubai earning good pay in a lawful profession. The two daughters, both lackadaisical, fill out the family.
The internal dynamics of the family are the central focus of the action, but unstable politics entangles it. As the family is pushed to the limit of its resources, an Orwellian, masked government figure (Purna Krishna Dangol) beams in over the TV to 'allay' fears and infuriate Sunni. The family dynamic is also impacted by the arrival of two outsiders, the lonely but boisterous upstairs neighbour Mrs Makhani (Sabine Lehmann) and the whining Toni.
With a bursting household and a crumbling political situation the family must draw together to face two catastrophic events - the arrest of Sunni on charges of terrorism and Baburaja's disappearance. The family succeeds in its twin tasks, with much comedy produced in the process. The play ends with a warm moral: no matter how adverse the situation is a little imagination and softening of stances can win the day.
Although the production has all of Studio 7's standard theatrical devices, like ear-splitting hullabaloo and Nepali dance masala, these are employed in moderation as comic relief. Unlike previous productions overpowering in sound, this one draws the audience in a little closer, even in an informal embrace. The gentle, playful touch of the production assures you that a child in the audience (there are always several present) won't break out in tears. Within the cast, the actors bring out a pleasing balance between unity and variety in acting styles and degrees of confidence.
As in earlier Stage 7 productions, the stage set, designed by Ludmilla Hungerhuber, captures the comic mood. The walls, windows and doors exist only as frames, allowing the audience to see into the bathroom and watch actors in the bunk beds. The absence of decorations gives the apartment a happy but needy look, and the delicate construction and pink and light blue hues complement the human conditions being explored. There are also snippets of humour on the labels of cornflakes boxes and firearms, and small mannerisms and interactions help establish the characters. Baburaja, for example, shares his 'new bread' sandwich with Sunni, who fools around with a stethoscope while disinterestedly studying chemistry.
The play concerns itself with many emotions, but anger, frustration and occasionally candid language bring out reactions from the audience. A little spice shouldn't bother anyone, though it is not a Studio 7 tradition. Babu Raja the play is like Baburaja the character. Amidst bandhs and bad weather-as amidst family tension and political instability- Studio 7 has brought out an engaging and clever play, presenting the Kathmandu theatre-goer with laughter and an irreverant look at family.
Punaysheel Gautam teaches art at Rato Bangala School.
Studio 7 presents Babu Raja at 7.15 PM on 2,3, 9-11 May at the Naga Theatre in Vajra Hotel. Tickets Rs 700. 4271545.