Rangaai Theatre Company has crafted a persuasively ominous atmosphere. When you first enter the venue for DARKROOM V4.0 — An Immersive Sensory Experience, you’re encouraged to roam the space freely—to see, touch and smell a variety of objects and photographs. Incense hangs in the charged air where every picture contains a disturbing narrative.
The defining metaphor of the performance itself is a darkroom. The performers are photo technicians—barefoot, dressed in black, with white aprons to protect against developing chemicals. The space in bathed in that tell-tale deep red light. Here, stories are developed onto the surface of the audience’s psyche.
The most compelling aspect of the immersive pre-show period are your interactions with performers as they drift through the venue. They approach, hand you a photo, and spend the next thirty seconds telling you a brief, haunting story fragment. The direct eye contact, the mundane image in your hand now fraught with eerie context; it’s quietly arresting.
The performance proper begins with a segment the audience experiences blindfolded. It is a tactile and auditory adaptation of Khol Do (Open It), Saadat Hasan Manto’s 1948 short story (from a collection which landed him an “obscenity” charge). An elderly man looses his daughter in a Lahore refugee camp, seeks the aid of some young men who then find, rape and murder her. The ending, in which he confronts her corpse, is cryptic and demands interpretation. Blending English and Urdu, the actors whisper, shriek and grasp at the blindfolded audience in an effectively unnerving barrage.
The “Choose a Story” segment is well placed in the middle, I think, as it is the least dynamic. Three audience members are invited to choose a story from a collection of small, photographic negatives. A series of actors sit directly front of us to tell each of the chosen stories. These stories were interesting for their historical details, as each one involves background context for a particular cultural circumstance, but the execution feels flat compared to the rest of the performance. The live, improvised acoustic guitar accompaniment helps to elevate this less assertive segment.
Based on an anonymous real life account of one individual’s harrowing experience of child abuse, the third segment, titled Durga Pujo, is the most theatrically dynamic. To immerse the audience as fully as possible in this ghastly tale, to properly convey the outrage and anxiety of an atrocity, director Tushar Tukaram Dalvi and his team took cues from the sensory provocations of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty.
Flashlights beamed directly in our eyes, stylized movement, rhythmic phrasing and startling use of props to suggest sexual abuse—though never naturalistically graphic in nature, these effects are deeply unnerving in their specific, awful implications. The entire cast is committed to an intense communal vibe, performers Shivam Dwivedi and Shriyanshi Quanoongo, however, really carry this most dramatically demanding segment. A jarring reveal heightens the sense of immediate danger and obscures the audience-performer boundary.
A call to action in the final moments then thoroughly disrupts audience passivity. You may find yourself overwhelmed and bewildered by the sheer assault to the senses. You may be compelled, instinctively, to participate; you may be stunned into immobility; you may be left with a nagging sense of guilt for not taking action. Any and all of these possibilities seem part of the conceptual design of this astonishing finale.
Rangaai has mastered this provocative, immersive format. Certainly not for everyone, but if this sounds like it’s your deal, there are five more shows on the horizon this summer.