Actor W.C. Fields famously warned that you should never work with animals or children. The Pleiades Theatre seems to have taken his advice for their latest production, Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office. They have cast Mina James, a woman, in the lead role of Amal, a sickly young boy. The adoptive son of Madhab Dutta, Amal has been forbidden by the local Healer to venture outside the confines of his family’s grounds. Thus, while his deteriorating body remains trapped Amal’s imagination soars, sparked by the Raja’s Post Office being built directly opposite his house.
James is supported by a good ensemble cast, at times uneven, which lends flair and nuance to this delicate tale. In addition, the (live) music, songs, costumes and choreography of the production all hit the mark with admirable precision. Teresa Przybylski’s set design is also perfect for this piece. Its simplicity fills the space without overwhelming the actors. Most of all, it does what any good set décor should do: provide a setting in which words can live, and Tagore’s lyric virtuosity shines magnificently here thanks to Julie Mehta’s vibrant translation. A philosopher, poet, educator, novelist and Nobel laureate, Tagore penned this play in 1911, an inspiring piece said to have inspired the likes of Gandhi, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats and countless others. Unfortunately, in this first Canadian professional production of the play, the actors speaking Tagore’s words don’t always do them the justice we feel they deserve.
There is an inescapably languorous tone to the production, which, no doubt, is director John Van Burek’s intention. In a very tangible way, we are meant to feel the boredom, languidness, repetition, and monotony that life might have in store for someone physically confined. That is why the role of Amal is so pivotal to the play. Amal’s wondrous curiosity about the outside world, compounded by his genuine interest in others regardless of their class or caste, needs to be infectious. As spectators we need to marvel, as intensely as Amal does, at what it means to become anything at all. When Amal wonders at the vast possibilities of growing-up to become a curd seller or a street beggar or the king’s postman, we too need to wonder about where life’s choices lead us. And when Amal dreams of exotic places, his exuberant idealism needs to carry us off to better worlds bereft of complacency. Hope lives through the musings of a dying boy.
The role of Amal carries tremendous artistic burdens in its attempts to embody spiritual transcendence. James’s talents, however, don’t quite have the necessary heft to carry out the great demands of the deceptively simple role; it is precisely when the actor tries too hard to embody Amal’s innocence that her performance suffers the most. Her attempts at wide-eyed purity occasionally falter toward the realm of syrupy naïveté, and in a few cases endearing passages are bungled in a sort of grating drone. Several of the other cast members also succumb to these pitfalls, all least convincing when attempting to infuse their characters with youthful joy or magical innocence. The only irreproachable performance is that of Sam Moses, who distills the Old Man and Fakir roles to their essence.
Yet even with some of the main performances falling short, the play is able to transcend any of the show’s dramatic limitations. And judging by the reactions of those at the post-première reception last night—where adjectives like “enchanting,” “genius,” and “brilliant” hovered effortlessly above the schmooze—the jubilant crowd couldn’t care less about the minor inconveniences of the production. The spirituality of Tagore’s piece is what matters, its philosophical import, and as well they should. It’s imperative, when considering a play such as this, to look well beyond the innocuous veneer. People love feel-good pieces and heart-warming stories, which this Pleiades production certainly delivers on the surface. Then again, so does The Lion King.
The Post Office runs at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs until June 4th.