“We are what we forget,” says a character pensively towards the end of Atul Kumar’s refreshingly enjoyable and engaging play The Blue Mug. The play stars Munish Bhardwaj, Sheeba Chaddha, Rajat Kapoor, Vinay Pathak, Konkana Sen Sharma and Ranvir Shorey. Through bilingual – Hindi and English - monologues the actors, playing themselves (except Sharma and Shorey), re-construct themselves from their earliest memories to the present day in a rich tapestry of stories that questions the very concept of memory and does it primarily on the strengths of the actors’ performances. Adapted from the novel The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks, the play provides a unique insight into the lives of the actors and provokes a debate over how we construct ourselves based on the memories we choose to share, or choose not to share. It also becomes a telling exploration of middle-class Indian identity, with precious details that any nostalgic NRI can relate to.
Kapoor kicks off the reminiscing by describing family gatherings centered on the bhutta (corn on the cob) where no one would worry about the digestive consequences of the day after. Chaddha talks about the beach, where she would collect remnants of glass bottles that have been worn by the sea into beautiful round pieces of shimmering blue and green. Pathak recounts the numerous times he was taken to the circus and the one embarrassing incident where a clown laughed at him in his face. Bhardwaj recalls his years in an all-boys convent school and “all the things that happen there.” As the monologues move closer to the present, the actors share increasingly personal vignettes, connecting pieces of the puzzle to provide a fuller picture of themselves.
The Sharma-Shorey track strays from the abstract structure of the rest of the play, since it borrows most directly from Oliver Sacks’ book and flows most like a traditional narrative. They are the only two members of the cast who play other characters and not themselves. In an adaptation of the story called ‘Lost Mariner’ from the book, Sharma plays a doctor conversing with her patient, Shorey (in his first play), who has lost the ability to form new memories and is thus stuck in 1983 at age 21. This is perhaps the closest Atul Kumar’s story gets to Sacks’ book. While Sharma injects effortless grace into her role (which was originally played by another actress when the play opened in India), her acting prowess could have been further exploited had the role been more substantial. Their storyline is dominated by Shorey who clearly has the meatier chunk of the two and, with a perfected Punjabi twang, delivers an astounding performance. The highlights of this sequence are when Shorey describes his family history (how they got into the business of selling fish), and later when he meets his brother after twenty years. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.
The Blue Mug has no set to speak of – just large chalkboards hanging from the ceiling on which the actors scribble key signs from their upbringing – and no costume changes. The focus is, therefore, entirely on the acting and how well the actors string it all together. Relying so heavily on the actors can also have its hindrances. There are moments when one wonders where the story is going, fearing aimless self-indulgence by the actors that branches off from the main point of the play. These few lengthy monologues are, however, redeemed by numerous memorable moments recounted in vivid detail. These include Chaddha’s story of going to her hometown of Saharanpur which was full of “characters, not regular people” or Bhardwaj’s ironic recounting of becoming an “expert” at cremation ceremonies as he and his brother became regulars at the cremation grounds.
At the end of the day – self-indulgent or not, unconventional or not – The Blue Mug is an innovative work of theatre that makes us question the way we share our memories, how we build ourselves based on them, and how true these memories can actually be.
As director Atul Kumar said during the post-performance discussion with the audience, “All memories are false – we create them each time we tell them.” And with such a stellar cast that remains thoroughly absorbing throughout, this is the way theatre should be.
If you are wondering why it’s called The Blue Mug, there’s no specific reason other than that it is an element of one of the actor’s memories. It also means that the play could have literally been titled anything else, depending on how you would want to remember it. That, essentially, is the point. T
he Blue Mug premiered in New York on April 24 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, sponsored by Bharat Jotwani of Poojanka Entertainment and the Indo-American Arts Council. A full schedule and ticketing information for future tour dates of The Blue Mug are available at: http://www.thebluemugplay.com/ticket.html