Melting in Madras
nytheatre.com review by Shelley Molad
February 26, 2009
Inspired by an unforgettable trip to India, Melting in Madras is a one-man show conceived by veteran storyteller H.R. Britton and presented as part of the FRIGID Festival at the Under St. Marks Theater, an intimate underground black box that hosts many new works.
When Britton walks on stage, barefoot, wearing khaki pants and a muslin white shirt, with a guitar (sporting an "om" sticker) strapped over his shoulder, he appears totally calm and centered—like what we'd expect someone to look like who just spent time in India. Britton takes us back to January 1995, to when he traveled to Madras (now Chennai), India with the intention of spiritually and culturally reinventing himself. Unfortunately, the curry didn't agree with Britton, and he ended up stuck in a hospital battling dysentery for 20-plus days, with IVs affixed to his arms to deliver a liquid-only diet.
As he begins his story, Britton comes across as a bit stiff and flat. But the characters he introduces along the way are dimensional, funny, and full of life. They include the nurse who takes care of him in the hospital, his yoga and music teachers, and some other memorable characters he encounters in the streets. Because Britton talks a bit fast as himself, at times he glazes over some rich elements in his story; I really wanted him to see the purple sunset and smell the magnolias he described as part of the Madras landscape, so that I could experience them too. Britton is most alive when he interacts with his characters, arguing with the nurse about the effectiveness of his meds, mocking the hospital staff when escorted to "pass motion," and struggling to imitate the resonant chanting of his music teacher—to name a few. The songs Britton plays and sings on the guitar add flavor and texture to the piece.
Most captivating are the moments when Britton is faced with panic and angst, which overcome him while he battles an unstoppable illness and struggles to find a common dialogue with the people who are in charge of his well being. His fear and anxiety over his own demise and ability to survive in a hospital ward where the staff seems to be surer of his needs than he is are what ultimately make him question his own perception and understanding of life. In the end, Melting in Madras serves to tell us that the journey to find ourselves is a constant and continuous one, and, as we continue onward, things will slowly but surely become clearer.