Most people will have a moment in their lives when they struggle between faith in a higher power and the rational beliefs of their scientific minds. Agnes of God, at its core, is about this crisis,” says theatre director Kaizaad Kotwal. In the play, questions are raised after the shocking discovery of the dead body of a newborn in a convent. A police investigation reveals that the baby’s mother — and alleged murderer — is a beautiful young nun, Sister Agnes. As the mystery unravels, all protagonists find it necessary to rethink and rewrite their faith. The radical storyline elicited a whirlwind of protests from Catholic organisations in Mumbai last year and the scheduled opening of the play was cancelled. It was staged a day later, under tight security, to an audience that gave it a standing ovation. “The play deals with the idea of a ‘scientific miracle’ or accepting the possibility of something that we haven’t figured out yet,” says Kotwal. Agnes of God will be staged at FICCI on March 9, its first show in Delhi.
Agnes of God will be up against nine other hard-hitting plays from across the country at the 11th Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) that will be held in Delhi from March 5 to 11. A sense of conflict is woven through the plays in the META shortlist — from the political tumult of 1948 in Palestine that influences a love relationship in Mein Hun Yusuf Aur Yeh Hai Mera Bhai to the sexual struggles of three students in a Pune campus in A Friend’s Story.
Faith is also at the centre of another musical, a musical from Delhi, After Death: A Spiritual Journey, which draws on the traditional death rituals, spiritual rites and ancestral folk stories of the Bhils. It’s not a contest that will be easy for a jury.
Kicking off the competition this year is Delhi-based Performance Studies Collective’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, an immersive play that has been adapted from a horror film. Performed in a warehouse, the play teases the mind by showing that people aren’t what they seem to be. Illusion and reality collide in Balcony, a production by Sasidharan Naduvil from Kerala. The Grand Balcony is a luxury brothel where people dress in their fantasy costumes — a rebel leader, for instance, wears the uniform of a police chief.
The woman’s voice emerges strongly in Akshayambara, as Bangalore-based Sharanya Ramprakash subverts gender roles by playing the male character of Kaurava and having a man play Draupadi. The play-within-a-play is about the two actors switching between domination and obedience on and off the stage. “In the green room, the man tells her, ‘You do not belong here’ but on stage, she is in the Pradhan Purush vesha (the masculine form) and says, ‘You are a thing to be disrobed and discarded’,” says Ramprakash, who trained in Badagutittu Yakshagana with Guru Bannanje Sanjeeva Suvarna. Reyhaneh Jabbari, an Iranian woman who was hanged in 2014 for murdering the man who had tried to rape her, speaks through her real-life notes in the play 07/07/07.
Kuhaimaravasigal (Cave Tree Dwellers) follows the people who were forced to go away from their mineral-rich mountains, and wander the earth. A quest for freedom propels three vagrants who have escaped from a mental asylum in Gautam Halder-directed Haoai (The Eleventh Planet). They live on hand-outs from passers-by and pretend to talk to the citizens of The Eleventh Planet on their stolen cellphones.
The plays will be held at LTG and FICCI from March 5-10. Cabinet of Dr Caligari will be held at Ambedkar University on March 5.