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Monkey business on the Karachi stage

March 01, 2010

Children may miss the neat allegory here, but adults will certainly pick up on the similarities between Katha's animal kingdom and present-day Pakistan. - Photo by Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
KARACHI There has been much back-patting in recent months regarding the reinvigoration of Karachi's theatre scene, and, consequently, its theatre-going public. Unfortunately, this public has fallen into a bit of a rut, with the crowd always comprising the usual suspects — a select theatre-going audience who, by now, have become familiar with one another and acknowledge this through half-smiles and slight nods at each new performance.

For this reason, The Citizens Foundation's decision to kick off its 10-day-long theatre festival with a play for children is inspired. Not only will the performance draw fresh faces to the Arts Council auditorium, it will also help cultivate the next generation of theatregoers. Only a group that is youth — and education-oriented could have taken the initiative to introduce children to the theatre scene, so one is grateful to The Citizens Foundation — which educates over 80,000 children across the country — for taking this step.

Parents and children will equally appreciate Aik Se Barh Kar Aik, for it has both political and narrative appeal. The play — a Katha production directed by Shahid Shafaat — is set in a jungle ruled by the proverbial kingly lion. One day, a hunter enters and plots to throw the strictly hierarchical animal kingdom into turmoil. To achieve that end, he persuades a young fox — burdened with his mother fox's high expectations for his future — to take over the lion's position as ruler.

The fox then resorts to all manner of chicanery in an effort to usurp the throne. Eventually, the animals have to decide whether internal rivalries matter more than preserving their kingdom from the machinations of the interfering, human outsiders.

Children may miss the neat allegory here, but adults will certainly pick up on the similarities between Katha's animal kingdom and present-day Pakistan. These parallels make the play engaging for audiences of all ages. Youngsters, meanwhile, will garner valuable, moral lessons from the staging. For instance, to pretend as if he has descended from heaven, the conniving fox tries to cover himself with leaves taken from a dying tree — the message about exploitation of any kind being unacceptable is conveyed through the tree's pleading.

That said, Aik Se Barh Kar Aik is not all stodgy politics and morals. Children across age groups will delight in scenes that bring together a colourful and quirky menagerie — including foxes, a bee, monkeys, zebras, and more — on stage. Indeed, five- to seven-year-olds will enjoy the play on a purely visual and experiential level the animal costumes are convincing and elaborate; the jungle set is lush, replete with trees, vines, and boulders; and the antics of the animals quite charming. The message of the play, meanwhile, will draw in 10- to 12-year-olds, who will also enjoy a side story about two mice falling in love.

On the whole, the actors make an effort to enliven their performances with animal-like movements. It is widely acknowledged that Sania Saeed is a versatile actress, but seeing her decked out in an animal suit and sporting whiskers to play the mother fox gives new meaning to that adjective. Munazza Fatima Naqvi, in the role of the bee, is also a treat as she buzzes and flits across stage. For their part, Imran Waziri, playing the lion, and Yasser Ali Shah as the monkey reveal real animal instinct as they duel across stage.

Overall, the play is a wonderful option for a family outing. Rather than patronise children with a scant plot and slapstick humour, Shafaat's script genuinely tries to engage them with lively characters, a captivating set, and a thought-provoking message. These qualities will make the performance interesting for adults too.

Aik Se Barh Kar Aik is running at the Karachi Arts Council from March 1 to 3. It is the first of three plays that comprise The Citizens Foundation theatre festival.

The following offerings, also Katha productions, include a romantic comedy, Mohabbat Bhi, Qayamat Bhi (March 4-7), and a drama, Johootay Roop Kay Darshan (March 8-10). Back-to-back performances are a challenge for any troupe, but if Katha is able to sustain the energy it mustered for its young audience in the coming days, the festival promises to be a treat for young and old alike.