Lee and Austin are brothers who don’t seem to have much in common. Austin is a cultured man with an Ivy League degree trying to make it as a screenplay writer. Lee is a wanderer who lives in the shadows. But when they come together in a difficult situation, it seems they are not different at all: each brims with toxic masculinity.
Nepal-based director Deborah Merola has chosen to stage this Pulitzer-nominated 1980 play by American playwright Sam Shepard without translation or much adaptation. You can Google the plot, spoilers and all, but we are just going to tell you that Austin suddenly stands to lose his dreams, despite his superior education and manners. And Lee, though on the brink of gaining everything, knows he cannot make it without his brother’s refined education. And so the brothers blame each other for their plight and battle it out, with an alcoholic father and a passive mother added to the mix.
Brothers envying one another is familiar to most of us: while Lee thinks that Austin — with his fancy degree and a foothold in Hollywood — is living the glamorous life, Austin thinks that Lee is a daredevil racking up new adventures every day.
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This intense drama simmers with an undercurrent of violence that threatens to explode. And sitting in the present, we cannot help remind ourselves of masculinity today — that however much things change, they remain the same. Lee’s desire to dominate everyone around him is an obvious example but so is Austin, whose manners are a mere veneer for what lies underneath.
“This drama is relevant today in the era of Donald Trump, when toxic male machismo is on the rise,” Merola tells us after a rehearsal this week at Kausi Theatre.
Perhaps because of its contemporary resonance, the drama is enjoying a revival today with a recent Broadway production starring Ethan Hawke and another starring Game of Thrones protagonist Kit Harington. Set in the US 30 years ago, it is considered a quintessentially American play, but the cast here feel that it has universal resonance today.
“We in Nepal think the grass is greener on the other side, and many of us go abroad with great expectations. But often what awaits is disillusionment,” says Divya Dev, who plays the younger Austin. Dreams can come crashing down any time and when that happens, Austin has nothing to hold on to, and reverts to base instincts.
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Alejandro Merola, who is menacing as the older Lee, feels every well-written drama has a wide resonance. “The lone alcoholic who slowly drifts out of respectable social circles and lives a criminal life on the edges is a universal character,” he says. “The play reminds us that there is an increase in such characters today.”
Eelum Dixit has a powerful stage presence as the easily manipulated producer Saul who doesn’t speak up against bullies, and Kurchi Dasgupta makes an impact as the lost, possibly depressed, mother who stays indifferent even as her sons fight. Divya Dev is at his best as the melancholy Austin, who appears a gentleman but is full of passive aggression. Alejandro Merola frightens us with his outright hostility until he makes an unbelievable transformation.
The drama is a stark portrayal of the unrealistic standards of success that modern society demands, and of the loss of simplicity and innocence. We see these mores manifesting now in Nepal, as well. Says Kurchi Dasgupta, who plays the mother: “Even though it is set in a particular time and place and has a distinctly American feel, you can draw allegories to the current time.”
Kausi Theatre, Teku