Is the best show that I have seen so far at this year’s Fringe a one-man play? This would be the scandal of the century. For years, I have denounced solo performances, I have tried to drive them out of the city, and I have unsparingly catalogued the flaws that they all share as a genre. If the Fringe was Noah’s Ark then one-man plays would be without a doubt the multiplying rats.
Yet Devang Tewari’s “Gigolo: Bold, Beautiful, Bizarre,” which has a couple of nights still to go at the Surgeons Hall, makes a whole play’s worth of weight float on its supple shoulders. It is electrifyingly performed and its story shimmers with beauty and moral horror alike.
You might ask why I was at a one-man show to begin with, if I detest them so thoroughly. Well, for a nation of over a billion people, India is always disappointingly underrepresented at the Fringe. “Gigolo: Bold, Beautiful, Bizarre” feels like a tiny drop that has escaped from a normally sealed container. It isn’t a Bollywood Titus Andronicus, which is what I would have ideally wanted, but it is an independent production from Lucknow. I am here to observe how it goes about doing Fringe theatre.
Tewari plays Murli, a kid from the sticks whose rags-to-riches story is simultaneously a misery memoir. During his calamitous childhood, he falls into the hands of an uncle who rapes him. But Chance is a fickle mistress and sufficiently remorseful once Murli is in Hyderabad to land him with a lucky break as a professional background dancer. The following story will be familiar to Western theatregoers from age-old depictions of California. As with Hollywood, those who don’t become film stars become porn stars. Murli is soon relying upon sex work when there isn’t enough dancing to do. And he is eventually murdering his customers, apparently just prior to climax, and presumably burying their bodies during the post-coital cigarette.
“Gigolo” features highly graphic representations of paedophilia, which some audience members may find too painful to watch. At a time when an actor can’t raise their voice without issuing a trigger warning first, this play could soon land itself into trouble here. The production would be advised to warn theatregoers beforehand and in the box office about the true nature of its contents.
The violence that is inflicted upon the young Murli is, however, indispensable to this play’s story and its aesthetic. The consequent scenes in the picaresque, when he is becoming a dancer, are disconcertingly carefree. He is a weightless, star-struck figure who is often tumbling around in childish over-excitement. He is a beautiful dancer and it is not hard to see why the producer who he meets had snapped him up like birdseed.
Still, this beauty and joie de vivre have no connection with his libido. His buoyancy as a dancer is being always juxtaposed with the coldness and the dead weight of his sexuality. I can see how his female clients would have an uncontrollable desire to make love to him and yet remain absolutely terrified throughout the entire experience. Moreover, I can see how they could hold these two things in their minds equally and simultaneously.
We will be reminded that problem-free physical contact had only ever befallen Murli when he was being tickled by his infant cousin. She had died of TB shortly afterwards. His worry that he is “cursed” leads him to consciously sever the love that he feels for other people from physical intimacy. I had come to this play looking to learn more about India (which I do), but its ultimate gift is to realistically demonstrate, unsentimentally but still empathetically, how a human being can slip into becoming a monster.
“Gigolo” ends prior to Murli’s arrest. He conceivably faces the death penalty, though the story never confirms this (he is modelled upon a real-life criminal). To the story, he is largely dead already.
I had used to comment that there was no one-man show that would not have made a better play. “Gigolo” here occasions a belated rethink. It would not work as a full play because Murli would dominate it and squash all of the other characters, whoever they were. But it would be nice to encounter Tewari at future Fringes and to observe how he fares with different formats and stories.