"Canadian classic" is a term overused to the point of meaninglessness in our theatres. There is simply not much of a dramatic canon in this country, for better or for worse.
If we want to build one, however, we're going to need more productions like Peter Hinton's exquisite take on Bombay Black, now playing as part of the Factory Theatre season of "reimagined Canadian classics." His rethink of this problematic text is more than a revival; it's an elevation.
Novelist Anosh Irani's somewhat overwritten 2006 play tells the story of a young Indian dancer named Apsara (Kawa Ada) who lives with her mother Padma (Anusree Roy) in Mumbai, called Bombay here.
The two have been in hiding from Apsara's father for a decade – the daughter in a state of low-grade depression, the mother in an ever-scalding rage.
Apsara earns the money they need to live by dancing for men in private. Her customers can look, but can't touch – at least not if they want to leave without having their hands or heads crushed by Padma and her notorious iron bar.
When a stranger named Kamal (Howard J. Davis) shows up for a dance, however, he can't even look: He's blind. "What pleasure does a blind man get from dance?" the dancer wonders. Eventually we discover why Kamal is there – he was married to Apsara when he was just 10 years old and she was 3. And he comes bearing news of her long-lost father.
Bombay Black lives on two levels. On one, it is an all-too-realistic story about childhood abuse in a rural Indian village – and an opportunity for belated payback. On the other, it is a new myth – where Apsara, as her name suggests, doubles as a celestial nymph, and Kamal as a lotus-flower lover who can be hers only if she forgoes revenge.
"Mythology is the poor man's diet," Kamal tells her. "The rich can afford to be realistic."
Hinton – borrowing a phrase from Jeanette Winterson – says Irani's play is written in "the language of rapture." Indeed, there's a heightened, almost religious tone to the poetic dialogue that requires faith from everyone onstage and off to sustain.
Hinton's production does everything right to help us believe. He has, first and foremost, cast a male actor as Apsara. This removes some of the shock value of the play's sexual violence, while sparing us the objectification of an actress.
It also distances viewers enough to allow us to believe in Apsara as an otherworldly creature – and places us, in a way, in Kamal's shoes, not quite able to see this woman renowned for her beauty and a sensuous dance that, according to her mother, "turns men into vegetables."
In recent years, Hinton has become known for the smart spectacles he has directed at the Shaw Festival on its main stage – productions designed to the max like musical theatre. Bombay Black, by contrast, is appearing as part of the Factory Theatre's "naked season" – which has promised plays stripped to their bare essentials.
Hinton is equally adept as a director in this forum. On a technical level, he has easily solved the acoustical problems of a denuded Factory mainspace by hanging black curtains and miking the actors (allowing for very intimate performances).
But his production also has a simple, yet stunning look. At the same time that he metaphorically blinds us, he also illuminates the stage in gorgeous ways with the help of designer Jennifer Lennon. Light shoots sideways, capturing the characters in claustrophobic shafts or breaks into dozens of tiny spotlights that turn them into twinkling celestial bodies.
Hinton and Lennon also use the width of the Factory stage marvellously – a scene staged with Apsara and Kamal leaning against opposite walls is ineffably beautiful.
The dance and movement (choreographed by Ada) is enchanting, taking place on a stage that has only a circular white carpet at its centre as set and a couple of metal bowls as props (all round metaphors for reincarnation). The three performances are top-notch – Davis's soft-spoken, eerie Kamal hypnotic; Ada's Apsara impossibly ethereal; and Roy's Padma an earthy delight.
Here is everything the Factory Theatre had promised us this season, at last – a "naked" staging, and a play "reimagined," not just revived. Irani's play may not be a "Canadian classic," but this production is.
Bombay Black runs until Dec. 6 (factorytheatre.ca).