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October 12, 2011

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Staging theater of the absurd

THE theater of the absurd depicts a world without rules, without sense - a world of chaos. It is a movement synonymous with the existential playwrights of the 1950s and 1960s, who were challenging the standard notions of the time, rewriting the rules of the stage.

In a post-world war, depression-stricken era, a new theater was born of the moment, and as a reaction to the moment.

Out of this harrowing time came Harold Pinter with "The Dumb Waiter" and Edward Albee with "The Zoo Story" - two plays that are towering examples of the absurd, monuments to our misperceptions. Bringing these challenging yet hugely enjoyable plays to the contemporary Shanghai stage are the East West Theatre company and Shanghai Short Plays.

The two men behind these two plays are directors Philip Knight, who will take on Pinter's play that is both "hilarious and scary, (this) is one of my favorite of his plays" and Exir Kalamabadi, a young director who is keen to prove himself with Albee's play, which he calls "masterful."

Sitting across the table from the two directors, their personas could not be more at odds. Knight, an old-hand on the amateur dramatics scene in Shanghai, has worked with most of the notable local companies, and lounges with confidence as he knocks back a beer, relishing the prospect of toying with the "intense situations" that Pinter has exquisitely set out.

Kalamabadi, in contrast, is reserved almost to the point of being timid, quietly sipping a slightly iced water. He is in no rush to declare his role, but as soon as he speaks of the play and characters, it is easy to see that the man is in tune with the task of creating "explosions in live theater," as he describes it.

And so to the "explosions" soon to hit the Shanghai stage. "They work well together - it's exciting to explore the two characters," says Knight. Both are intense two-men acts, short, and ask difficult questions through stunted, and at times broken dialogue. One is set in a single dark, prison-like room. The other on a park bench. Nothing much happens in either.

This is in part because absurdist theater broke down the traditional rules, taking plot and dialogue off their established pedestal, pushing things and actions (or the lack of action) to the fore. Action is limited and illogical, realism replaced. Through unconventional means, the "purpose" of drama was re-visited.

For Pinter, this can be illustrated through his promoting of the dumb waiter to a character, as the two hitmen, Ben and Gus, sit around having existential conversations, both listening to and ignoring one another, awaiting a mysterious character of Beckettian qualities.

"He might not come. He might just send a message. He doesn't always come," suggests Gus. When finally the dumb waiter does deliver a message, it is a shocking one.

"The Zoo Story" also questions the role of communication, as the two characters, Peter and Jerry, are thrust together in forced dialogue. Both are from very different worlds, their ignorance of one another's problems leading to an underlying tension, and another shocking ending follows.

"The ideas are not limited, they're universal," adds Kalamabadi.

Date: October 13-15, 8pm; October 16, 2:30pm

Venue: Downstream Garage, 3/F, Bldg 100, 200 Longcao Rd

Tickets: Free (donations gratefully received)

For further information, visit or call 1356-4102-955.

Liam Singleton is a Shanghai-based freelancer.


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