Printable CopyGURU OF CHAI
The Space
Until 27 Oct 2018

Review by Sarah Westgarth

The ability to perform a one-person show is a rare and unique one. Many have tried, assuming they can rely on a certain level of charm or an interesting premise; and many have failed, discovering that it’s just not enough. Having the presence to captivate an audience, relying solely on the storytelling skills of a lone performer, requires a command of the stage as well as engaging material to spin. In “Guru of Chai”, actor and co-writer Jacob Rajan shares the stage only with his accompanying musician Adam Ogle, who does not speak a word throughout the show.

From the moment he enters, Rajan is Kutisar, a poor chai-wallah from Bangalore whose life is changed when a group of sisters, homeless and poverty-stricken, begin to sing in the train station where he has his chai stand. For the next hour and a half, Rajan takes on over seventeen roles as he weaves the tale. We follow Kutisar’s fatherly relationship with the youngest sister, a headstrong young woman who captures the heart of a local policeman sworn to be her protector, who she rejects in favour of a disreputable poet. Enhanced by David Ward’s musical compositions, “Guru of Cha” is a tragic fable about power, passion and people. Rajan and his co-writer and director Justin Lewis were inspired by a mask dancer and shadow puppeteer they met in Bali, as well as the Indian fairytale ‘Punchkin’ to create this compelling and emotional piece of theatre.

While the setting may be foreign, the ideas and feelings of the story transcend time and place. With a few simple props, the audience is transported to a bustling train station in Bangalore, an illegal cockfight in New Dehli, and the resplendent home of a respected minister. While the locations are crucial to the plot, the vividly drawn characters capture the heart and mind in a way that feels universal. Rajan’s subtle physicality and voice acting brings each person to life, no matter how minor. While some of the scenes that rely on more visual storytelling (such as the violent confrontations) can sometimes be confusing when it comes to specifics, the people the story is about always feel desperately and painfully real. While the circumstances presented are tragic, Rajan breaks the tension with Kutisar’s light hearted and simple demeanour—his conversations with the moon are a particular highlight—and his playful interaction with the audience. He perfectly balances this so it never feels dismissive of the seriousness of the situation, but keeps the mood from becoming too dour.

With the use of sleight-of-hand magic, shadow puppeteering, compelling characterisation and of course, evocative music, “Guru of Chai” is a masterclass of storytelling. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, yet full of emotional complexity. It is not a flawless production, but it is one that is full of heart. Rajan creates an intimate connection with his audience that allows them to be swept about by Kutisar’s tale. There were laughs, gasps and tears throughout the show, and the final curtain call was greeted with thunderous applause. This is theatre that touches the heart and soothes the soul, and reminds us of the importance of making positive connections with others. In other words, it’s exactly what theatre should be.