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Burmese Days

No European cares anything about proof. When a man has a black face suspicion is proof — U Po Kyin, the corrupt Burmese Magistrate who uses the prejudice of the British to suit his own nefarious plans to ruin a local doctor.
Burmese Days
Amerjit Deu, Charlotte Allam and Jamie Zubairi
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Mention George Orwell, and the term "Big Brother" from 1984 probably comes to mind. Both that and his other dystopian novel, Animal Farm, have been filmed and staged. Yet his lesser known first novel Burmese Days, seeded by his 5-year service in the Burmese Military Police, is well worth reading. Political in Its condemnation of the British Raj era, but a sweeping, naturalistic drama, reading it evokes images that have the makings of a Merchant-Ivory film of an E. M. Foster novel or the great mini-series The Jewel and the Crown based on Paul Scott's Raj Quartet.

The arrival of the Aya Company's stage adaptation of Burmese Days in New York as part of this season's Brits Off-Broadway program promises to lift Orwell's more realistic work out of obscurity (the characters, though fictional, were all based on real people). Unfortunately, the novel's plot, characters and evocative setting have become muddled and denuded in the page to stage transfer by Ryan Kiggell.

That plot in a nutshell revolves around a fictional colonial outpost where the social life centers around a club, its exclusiveness threatened by an order from higher up that they must take in a native members. That edict sends the bigoted ways of the members into high gear and also serves to illustrate the corresponding nastiness colonial rule has seeded among natives. The native nasty guy is U Po Kyn, the crooked magistrate who has learned to use the occupiers' narrow-mindedness to his own advantage -- which now includes getting himself elected as that first native member of the club. Being part of the local colonials and sharing their disdain for many of the natives and yet liberal enough to befriend an Indian doctor and appreciate the beauty of the country, makes John Flory, the tragic central character. A large birthmark covering one side of his face symbolizes this two-sided attitude. And his love affair with a newly arrived British girl whose character he completely misreads is sabotaged by the scheming U Po Kyn.

I'll admit that I had my doubts about how the subtleties of the characterizations and a plot that includes a tiger hunt, an earthquake and a bloody riot could work in a venue as small as 59e59's Theater B. In fact my curiosity about how adapter/director Ryan Kiggell (who also performs) was going to tackle this daunting task that made me set aside a day in an overly busy season to find out.

As it turns out, people like me who have read the novel are at an advantage. (I noticed that several audience members were carrying copies of the book which is still in print). They at least have an easier time than those unfamiliar with the book of making sense of Kiggell's highly stylized staging — which in this case misses the finer points of the novel and translates as an ultra-bare bones production with sound effects as for a radio play, and five actors playing 17 characters as well as the new-to-the-play chorus as well as a giant water buffalo and a tiger. —

Artistic directors on tight budgets have again and again turned the necessity of multiple casting and simple staging into inventive theater. Burmese Days is not without elements of this sort of inventiveness —, for example the several scenes where actors portray jungle animals, and when a drum, one of the sound effect making instruments handled by the busy actors metamorphoses into the moon to accentuate a romantic moment. Most of the time, however the visible creation of the sound effects, and the actors being on stage even when not in the action is distracting from a staging that requires full attention to keep track of who's who.

George Moustakas' wooden bleacher set (a rather ugly attempt to create a sense that we're in a part of Burma rich in timber and consequently timber merchants like the main character, John Flory (Jamie Zubairi). Zubairi plays not only the Englishman but the corrupt U Bo Kin, whose scheme to become a member of Brits-Only club includes destroying Flory's Brit-loving Burmese Dr. Verrall (Zak Shukor) and instigating a violent rebellion. I've seen this sort of doubling of two characters who are complete opposites play out to good, and even witty, effect. However, the actors here have neither costumes, make-up or anything else to indicate their characters' ages or racial identity which makes the casting choices seem ill-conceived and strictly cash flow dictated. It would have worked better if this were a radio play.

While Jamie Zubairi's Flory is probably the best of otherwise too undifferentiated and emotionally weak performances, the disfiguring scar is not much more than a big dark smudge he occasionally touches self-consciously. Its symbolism in defining this man's complex character is completely lost, as are the nuances that make Flory an interesting tragic anti-hero.

Admirable as this company's effort to bring this work to more people's attention, I think reading the book would be a more satisfying way to appreciate and experience it. With that in mind, here's a link for a free free e-reader copy at at Project Gutenberg Australia:

Burmese Days"" George Orwell's novel adapted and directed by Ryan Kiggell (who also performs)
Cast: Charlotte Allam (Elzabeth, Ma Kin), Amerjit Deu (Ellis, Veraswami), Ryan Kiggell (MacGregor, Sammy), Zak Shukor (Ko Ba Sein, Westfield, Ko S'La, Verrall), Elisa Terren (Mrs. Lackersteen, Ma Hla May), Jamie Zubairi (U Po Kyn, Flory)
Designed by: George Moustakas
Lighting: Anna Sbokou
Sound: Helen Atkinson
Burmese Dance Choreography: Shwe Min Thar Than Win Stage Manager: Amy Kaskeski
Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, includes 1 intermission
Aya Theatre Company at Brits Off Broadwayt 59E59
From 11/09/11; opening 11/16/11; closing 12/04/11
Tues-Thurs 7:15pm, Friday & Sat 8:15pm; Sat !2:15pm; Sun 3:15 pm Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 11/15 press performance
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