Testament: A fitting celebration of the Theatre Guild’s restoration
Stabroek News – April 6, 2008
Arts On Sunday By Al Creighton’s
A theatrical production was performed on the weekend of March 14 to 16, 2008, which was exceptionally important for several reasons. It goes down in history as the inaugural production in the Restoration Period of the Theatre Guild Playhouse in Kingston, Georgetown, a historic theatre in its own right, which has been happily rescued from ruin and set on its way again. Informally, it was reopened, its unfinished facilities tested by this new production and found to be truly on the way to fitness and recovery.
The event was announced as the 31st production of GEMS Theatre Productions, founded in 2002 and led by Gem Madhoo-Nascimento to be the leading, most prolific and most accomplished company in Guyana. Ever inventive, GEMS, not for the first time, pulled together a team of varying interests and talents, who worked on an imaginative project for a worthy cause.
From beginning to end, this included Dr Janice Imhoff, a collective of women who fought off and survived life-threatening illness, Madhoo Nascimento, Dr Paloma Mohamed, Russell Lancaster, Norman Dos Ramos, the Periwinkle Club, the Guyana Rugby Football Union and the multi-million dollar Theatre Guild Renovation Project.
The production, which is scheduled to be performed again next weekend, is also important as a celebration, an inspiration, and as educational theatre. It rose out of a book of interviews, Our Words will be there by Imhoff, which documents the experiences of cancer survivors, brave women who seem to have decided to go public with their struggle and their triumph over the life-threatening affliction.
Through the persistent efforts of GEMS Theatre, a dramatist was found who would transform the testimonies into stage. The efforts were rewarded when one of Guyana’s best, Mohamed, wrote Testament and engaged Lancaster to direct it. The production allowed the Periwinkle Club, launched in 2006 to provide a forum for cancer survivors, to sensitise the public to the risks, the methods of detection and approaches for prevention.
Mohamed’s Testament, therefore celebrated many things, including her first new drama in Guyana for many years, as well as the good progress being made by the Theatre Guild renovation.
However, there was another very good reason why the performance was of such exceptional importance, why it was such a fitting celebration, and why it was such an appropriate event to return drama to the Playhouse. It was decidedly good theatre of genuine excellence.
The playwright revealed that Imhoff’s book “engaged the lives of several women who I know very well. I cannot explain the feelings of discomfort that I have had to overcome in order to produce this piece in a way that was respectful, sensitive and protective of their dignity. The subject matter presented another challenge since it is by nature morose and terrible. Yet, a way had to be found to convey hope and growth and survival”.
In addition, “I was looking for a form that was theatrically interesting”. She succeeded. The book itself has power, dramatic energy of its own, a sense of narrative and even a sense of humour. But it had to be turned into theatre, anchored by a workable form since, in the hands of an average craftsman it could threaten to be a monotonous drone. It did not end up in such hands.
Mohamed knows the stage well enough to have produced a piece that would give a director no difficulties and Lancaster was able to work with it for a rewarding and fulfilling piece of theatre. The technical competence involved was underlined by the fact that the production was mounted while the construction work related to the Phoenix-like rebirth of the new Playhouse building out of the disjecta membra, the scattered ashes of the old, would have been going on around them. This much was evident in the performances, which took place in an unfinished, make-shift infrastructure within which a comfortable, worry-free and theatrically competent presentation was fashioned, guided by the strength of the script.
This multi-media production with its power-point images was made to work. There were signs that artistic theatrical lighting was on its way back, through Dos Ramos’s design. In addition to that, sound, including the guitar of Paul Budnah, and video projection were effectively employed within this structure.
Against Mohamed’s imaginative set design, the cast worked with the assistance of careful attention to make-up by Beverley Hinds and conceptualised costuming. With these aids the acting was uniformly good. The five leads Jennifer Thomas (Mariatha Causway Holder), Sheron Cadogan, Sonia Yarde, Margaret Lawrence and Simone Dowding were very neatly complemented by a support cast of George Braithwaite, Teri Ann Phang, Sherry Ann Dyal, Nurriyah Gerrard, Tahirrih Gerrard, James Gerrard, Keri Marie Phang, Dexter Charles, Sean Budnah and Travis McKenzie.
The play started off with narratives by four women (Thomas, Cadogan, Yarde and Lawrence) revealing dreams and visions that visited them with little, unrecognised, misunderstood, disturbing signals. These were dramatically introduced through elements of foreboding, discordant observations, the supernatural and signs of malignance. Yet, sameness was avoided by character and personality contrasts such as provided by Yarde’s excellent playing of the woman revelling in the deciduous comfort of her “perfect 10” voluptuous body, only in a minor, curious way bothered by the discovery of something slightly unnatural.
The imagery surrounding her worked delightfully. Her physical sufficiency was repeatedly endorsed by the fairy-tale “mirror, mirror on the wall” that encouraged her in the security of her flawless, desirable figure. It worked because there was that one small blip that she ignored and did not quite recognise; something was going wrong in one of her heavenly breasts. It worked because the mirror on the wall (Braithwaite) that, in the fairy fables, has the ability to tell the future, failed in this regard and could not warn her of danger. What should have been a super-human magic mirror exhibited the weakness of a man lost as much as she was in the smitten self-worship of her glorious body and a false sense of security in its glamorous flawlessness.
Another successful factor in the dramatization was the way, adequately supported by symbols, images and the accomplished acting of Thomas and Cadogan, the discordant signs became more blatant and the women were still reluctant to accept them. This refusal to admit to the worrying signs was effectively shown to develop into denial, then fear of the encroaching truth and its consequences. The script handled this very well in the dramatised denial of the confirmed cancer and the way the women could not even bring themselves to pronounce the word.
Images and symbols became more interestingly engaging in the use of the set. There was one corner with steps upstage right that tended to be under-used. But other parts of it developed to be theatrically dynamic. There were four doors, three of which remained stubbornly unopened as the women were transfixed by the fear of unwelcome discovery lurking behind them. This became explosively dramatic when the fourth woman, Margaret Lawrence, who played with power and confidence, was the one bold enough to open the last door which in an explosive burst unleashed a fury of demons, harpy-like sprites who pounced to torment the terrified women.
Yet there was more of theatrical interest in this aspect of the design. These images, called the Shadows in the script, are reminiscent of Medieval theatre and the morality plays. They form a plague of demonic evil spirits led by the character Fear (Simone Dowding) as in the morality play with its personification of Vices, Virtues and Qualities. The infamous Medieval plagues were death sentences, unstoppable epidemics that terrified, unmatched by the limited medical science of the times. Supported by the costuming, this element was one of the play’s successes.
Dowding might have exceeded all the previous performances she has ever done in what she achieved in this role, playing well against Lawrence, the woman who resolved to confront Fear and motivate the other three.
This episode was the turning point in the drama. Dowding’s band of demons stood as the Bad Angels of the Middle Ages tormenting the women with fear, denial, misinformation and the ignorance characteristic of those ancient times. They came up against the Good Angels represented by the glimmer of that inner voice of encouragement in Women One (Thomas) and Two (Cadogan) and the positive attitudes of the Fourth Woman (Lawrence).
That turning point was a dramatic reversal in other ways too, because with Fear having been cowed down, unmasked and vanquished, the tension diminished. The women had found treatment, cure and recovery and it should have been the grand episode of conquest and celebration. However, while the triumph was emotionally felt, the dénouement and resolution were not theatrically interesting and less rich in devices than the preceding episodes. It was much more difficult to communicate the messages of watchful detection and prevention without preachiness.
Nevertheless, with the patients recovered, confidence was reclaimed. The Theatre Guild is on a clear path to its own recovery and without doubt, Paloma Mohamed has returned.
Carifesta X is coming back home to Guyana in August 2008 and with a production like Testament signalling the way, by all appearances, theatre in Guyana may well be being nurtured back to good health.