By Staff Writer Tavish Mohanti
As the largest Indian theater in the US, Naatak hosted its newest production, Ultimate Breaking News, as part of its Saturday Naatak Live initiative, an effort to bring weekly remote live productions to audiences all over the world.
The story follows four TV journalists who are kidnapped by a psychopathic mastermind and forced to play a deadly game, live-streamed to millions of viewers around the world. Every 15 minutes, one of them is killed, and they are given the option to either choose who dies or let the game-maker decide.
The play — streamed entirely over Zoom — provides constraints, with no physical interaction, no shared stage, and no complicated sets. But, director and writer Vikram Ramanarayanan takes those drawbacks and uses those shelter-in-place difficulties to create a truly immersive setting and experience, entirely different then what can be seen on a physical stage. Starting off the play with an emergency news broadcast, the audience is pulled in and immediately forced into the center of the unfolding events. Ramanarayanan takes advantage of the Zoom format to make the audience feel as if they, too, are part of the story.
Ramanarayanan talks to the audience.
“Zoom allows us to make it look more lifelike as if you’re watching a film, but it’s a live stage production,” Ramanarayanan said in a live Q&A segment after the play. “But the challenge of Zoom is that each person had to be their own set person, prop person, lights person, costume person, everything. Everyone had to make sure that not only do they set it up, but they set it up so that everything looks the same.”
For an at-home production amidst the pandemic-era restrictions, the costumes, lighting, and props were surprisingly well-put-together. For example, all of the characters’ make-up — purple bruises, dirt scuffs, black eyes – feel incredibly realistic, as if they had actually been violently captured and tortured.
The realistic makeup adds to the experience.
With only simple white walls as backdrops, the actors and their abilities are thrust into the spotlight and put to the test — a test they, unfortunately, fail. The acting is amateur, over-exaggerated, and melodramatic.
Understandably, it is a challenge to showcase emotional rawness through a 16-by-9 Zoom screen, but the inauthentic, forced feel yanks the viewers from the experience. Oftentimes, actors leave awkward pauses in between lines that — whether intentional or not — kills the build-up for major emotionally-charged and climactic moments. In a mystery-thriller like this, those twist-and-turn moments and a fast pace are integral to a successful production, but the acting causes these moments to fall short.
With that being said, Anju Prakash, who plays the unnamed psychotic antagonist, steals — or should I say, kidnaps — the show. Though never shown on screen, her voice acting is impeccable; with engaging vocal intonations and perfect comedic timing, she adds more humor, excitement, and pure entertainment in her disembodied voice than any of the other actors do on screen.
However, to the actors’ credit, the script itself lends little to no character development for them to work with, and the characters often feel pigeonholed into stereotypes and clichés.
Namita Kumari (Tannishtha Mukherjee) is the angsty feminist, Varsha Dattatreya (Ranjini Srinivasan) is the kind, submissive protagonist, and Arindam Mandal (Rajiv Nema) is the chauvinistic boss. Their character arcs are severely lacking with half-baked personalities and virtually no change in behavior or key realizations by the end of the play.
Additionally, the plot — the game show of life and death — is a typical thriller archetype that can be seen in movies like Saw, Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV, and Saw V. Needless to say, the audience saw this plotline coming from a mile away.
Besides the overused plot devices and canned characters, the play does make some interesting commentary on the media in India, discussing corruption in reporting and how many journalists write stories to simply fill their pockets with dirty money from politicians. In this play, the reporters are forced to confront their wrongdoings, and watching this in real-time makes the message hit powerfully.
But, even this important message, coupled with the satisfactory production quality and psycho starlet Anju Prakash, is not enough to save this play. Ultimate Breaking News ultimately falls flat on its face.
Cover Graphic courtesy of Naatak