Theatre review: Indian play Tara could have been made more distinctly Singaporean

Tara is unfamiliar play for most of us Singaporeans. In India, however, it is revered as a modern classic. Created by playwright Mahesh Dattani in 1990, it exposes the insidious influence of patriarchal sexism through the tale of Chandan and Tara, a brother and sister who were once conjoined twins.

At first glance, the work seems to be an innocent family drama. The siblings are reasonably well-adjusted 16-year-olds, each sporting a prosthetic leg. But a secret is slowly tearing the family apart: The fact that Tara could have had two legs, had their mother not told the surgeon that the leg should be given to Chandan - a medical procedure which ultimately failed, leaving both kids crippled.

This production of Tara at Drama Center on Friday kicks off Ravindran Drama Group's Indian Nightingale Series, an initiative to feature more women-centred plays in their repertoire. Director Mayura Baweja has further chosen to set the tale in 1990s Singapore, featuring a racially diverse cast.

The results are somewhat mixed. The confrontations of the second act are certainly dramatic, but before that, the action feels just a touch slow, the dialogue just a beat less snappy than it should be. Granted, this is partly thanks to the script: the characters' wants are unclear in the first act, and the theme of sexism is very subtle - Tara and her mother seem stuck in their lives more due to idiosyncrasy and circumstance rather than institutional prejudice.

Perhaps the production suffers from its cultural dislocation. The original drama is specifically set in an upper-class Bengaluru household with a Gujarati father and a Kannada mother. This version is set in a Westernised expatriate community, with few specifically Singaporean touches. It thus lacks the warmth of the vernacular, as well as the specific cultural resonances of its charges of sexism.

One also wishes Baweja had come in with a stronger directorial vision. As it is, expressionistic sequences featuring disembodied voices and cloth tents are mixed intermittently with largely naturalistic sets and action. With such a bizarre subject matter, a more consistently off-kilter approach might have better suited the play.

Ultimately, Tara is a laudable introduction for Singaporeans to Dattani's dramatic oeuvre, and a decent showcase for its two leads, Tushar Ismail and Krissy Jesudason. Still, it is not quite as emotionally powerful as its reputation suggests. Regardless of its foreign origins, Ravindran Drama Group could have taken far greater steps to make it distinctly our own.

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