A girl bathed in green light, lying on her back, wailing as she dies of starvation. An elderly monk swathed in orange robes, singing into a megaphone as he leads a caravan of ecstatic festival-goers.
The Indian Ensemble’s original play “Thook” has activist ends — it examines issues of “food security, international trade and hunger,” according to the playbill — but succeeds in creating searing images of individual human suffering, compassion and humor. With just five actors, the production leaps nimbly from Winston Churchill’s kitchen to a corporate marketing photo shoot to the slums of present-day India.
The show is divided into four scenes: a man playing Winston Churchill’s Indian cook and Churchill himself; a hellish sequence wherein three children see their father beheaded and seek refuge in an abandoned warehouse; the filming of a soft-drink advertisement, at which corporate marketers show off their blissful ignorance of third-world life; and finally, an extended story of a Hindu businesswoman and a Muslim trader falling in love in contemporary India.
Amazingly enough, it works. The disparate storylines don’t feel thrown together — in part because the costume and set changes are interwoven with interludes about global politics that are never boring or difficult to follow.
The actors are utterly convincing. Just minutes before one man plays Mahatma Gandhi, he plays Winston Churchill’s dog Rufus with equal believability. One woman plays a dying girl, a monk-grandfather, a working adult woman, and, believe it or not, Franklin Roosevelt. And still, credibility is not strained for a second.
While the viewing experience is smooth, the connections that we are supposed to intuit between the play’s many elements — the meaning of it all — are less than obvious. Much of the show concerns the parallel Bengal food crises of 1943 and 2008. During the former, Churchill refused to send aid, and history repeated itself five decades later when the West largely ignored the food riots. But the historical connection, while poignant, only emerges after some reflection.
The ambivalence of Churchill’s cook toward his employer reflects the audience’s own mixed feelings. Was he gluttonous, hypocritical and cruel or heroic, charismatic and affectionate? And why does Churchill shoot his dog?! “Thook” is a play of ideas, but not of easy answers or didactic conclusions.
The set’s only constant fixture is a set of clouds fashioned from cotton and rope. Everything else is fluid: Effects are achieved by subtle sounds, masterful lighting and force of personality. Dripping water, ominous pulsing and distant traffic sounds enhance different settings. The show is a collaboration between the Indian Ensemble of Bangalore, who flew in from India last week, and the Hartbeat Ensemble, a Hartford-based group that explores social justice issues. Whoever was in charge of tech knew precisely what they were doing.
I did not know before seeing the show what language it was in, and I am still unsure. Most dialogue is Hindi, with English subtitles projected on screens far above the stage that force the audience to choose between watching the stage or reading the text. Many jokes were obviously lost in translation and transcription, as was obvious from the heavy and frequent chuckling of the Indian family seated next to me, at moments when the rest of the audience was silent. But at random times the actors broke into English, in varying degrees of consistency with the subtitles. Despite the jumble, there were still moments of lyric intensity that were communicated clearly and powerfully.
In the final scene, an old Indian woman confronts a young African man and tells him, “You’re too poor to die. Death is an expensive affair.” The tragic double-bind of poverty and hunger could not be stated with more economy. “Thook” translates to English as “spit” and over the course of the play comes to mean something vital — a sign of love and of human instinct. It is messy and visceral and compelling and therefore a fitting title for a play that is all these things.
Correction, Sept. 17: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Hartbeat Ensemble as being from New Haven. In fact, the group is from Hartford.