As the audience enters Crossroads Theatre to head to their seats for "Curry Tales," they hear recorded music and find themselves looking down into a modern kitchen, with a TV screen at its center. On the screen they see a close-up of a knife slicing and mincing vegetables or a spoon stirring those vegetables in a frying pan. This is the setting for "Curry Tales," a one-woman show written and produced by Rani Moorthy, who plays six different women (one of them a goddess) who use food to make a variety of points.
Moorthy, who was born in Malaysia and started her acting career after the family emigrated to Singapore, has lived in Britain for the last 12 years, where she serves as artistic director of Rasa Productions. As an actress and a writer she has worked not just in theater but in radio, tv, and film.
In "Curry Tales" Moorthy uses the culture of curry to portray her six characters and through them to express her views on how the world works. Each of Moorthy’s characters cooks her own curry, usually offering some to the audience, either passing small plates to a few individuals or a larger plate for several to share. Sometimes a member of the audience is invited to come on stage and help with the cooking.
The play opens with Mrs. Dimple Mehwani, a Delhi socialite, who owns a coffeehouse and is determined to wean Delhi’s citizens away from pizza and back to curries. Next is a Tamil, who lives in Trinidad and has assimilated to the point that she wears a feathered headdress and seems to be practicing voodoo. She is stirred by the fire of the spices to thoughts of revenge against a former lover.
Other characters include a slum dweller who has to beg for her ingredients and at one point even steals a member of the audience’s purse. What this character says is not intelligible; she never speaks a word of English her entire time onstage. We assume she was speaking some kind of language from southern India because a member of the audience who came from Madras answered her.
Then, the young wife of a British man must figure out how to feed her Western in-laws, and an Indian living in Malaysia has been tied to the stove by her eldest son. The final character is Annapurna, the Goddess of Food, who rants about the shabby treatment she has received from Shiva and plots a food-centered revenge.
For most of the characters the connection between food and romance is front and center. And for some of the characters, the dialogue and gestures – including that old standby, the mortar and pestle – reach a level that leads this reviewer to recommend that you not bring young children.
While each of these characters is telling her tale, real food is cooking on the stove. The video, which runs during much of the performance, is sometimes live, showing what is actually cooking on the stove right then; at other times it shows people in other places eating their curry, or vegetables being chopped. Occasionally, you can hear food crackling in the frying pan, but what is most unusual for a theatrical performance is that you can smell the food as it cooks.
Moorthy bends ordinary stage conventions to interact unusually closely with the audience. She wanders about the front of the stage, leaves the stage to walk into the audience, addressing – in some cases attacking might be a more accurate word – individual members or small groups of the audience.For example, Moorthy would accuse someone of not telling her the truth or holding out on her and would walk up close and wag her finger right in someone’s face. Although atypical amid Western stage conventions, this kind of interaction is evidently a feature of the Khutthu theater of South Indian folk theater. In some cases she was aggressive enough, perhaps because of the nature of a particular character, to make some members of the audience uncomfortable. There were also, unfortunately, occasions when the lessons of life the audience was expected to draw from a tale were not exactly profound or unexpected.
This is not to belittle Moorthy’s obvious abilities. She has set up a well-thought-out structure, and made it clear how the culture of India and the importance of food to that culture survive, even thrive, in the wide range of places her characters inhabit. The differences in her characters are striking, and it is interesting to note that at the beginning of the play she leaves the stage to change and then comes back in a completely different costume, giving the audience time to adjust. For the last few changes there is no longer a need for discrete breaks of this kind; Moorthy simply slips to the back of the stage and alters a few of her accessories.
Judging by the reactions of the opening-night audience, Crossroads has a hit on its hands.