SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT
Alberta Theatre Projects
Big Secret Theatre Epcor Centre
Runs until April 6
Written by and starring Anita Majumdar Same Same But Different aims to be a lot of things and succeeds at many of them. It’s a tribute to and criticism of Bollywood with electric choreography and an encyclopaedic knowledge of Indian film. It is a commentary on societal conceptions of whiteness and particularly Bollywood’s seeming obsession with lighter-skinned heroines. It’s a multi-generational story of aspirations and insecurities and how both can be passed on from parent to child. It is often entertaining and insightful but also needlessly convoluted overly repetitive and structurally flawed. In stitching together what could be a pair of one-act plays it manages to be at once too long and not long enough leaving both of its halves feeling unfinished while testing the audience’s patience by the end.
The first half takes place on a makeshift Bollywood set in Vancouver where an unseen director (voiced with relish by Reza Jacobs) is berating his star Aisha (Majumdar). His comments are initially comic but it’s quickly clear that they’re also abusive preying on Aisha’s ego and her insecurities with little regard for the person behind the performance. As her dance starts and stops she’s watched by fellow dancer Ben (Nicco Lorenzo Garcia) who soon steps through the fourth wall to recount how this filming reached such a low.
The act then alternates between three modes: Ben’s narration of his quick rise from backup dancer to co-star a series of dance numbers featuring Majumdar and Garcia and scenes of Aisha and Ben getting to know each other. Of these the dance numbers are easily the most entertaining; both leads are fantastic dancers and both manage to convey a great deal of character from their reactions to the choreography. The narration is the least essential and wouldn’t be necessary if it wasn’t for the first act’s looping timeline. The dramatic scenes are somewhere in between. As the script keeps coming back to skin colour and the pernicious influence of the “fairness” products (skin-whiteners) and Majumdar is obviously passionate about this material but there’s a clunkiness to the dialogue that stands in sharp contrast to the grace of the dance sequences. It’s occasionally unclear exactly what’s going on which culminates in an incredibly awkward act break (which left my editor convinced that the play was actually over albeit in a vague and unsatisfying way).
That lack of resolution isn’t fixed in the second act which jumps back to the late 1980s where singer Felipe (Garcia again) is trying to wrap up a recording session. He’s joined by Kabira (Majumdar this time playing the naif rather than the star) a first-time singer who is obsessed with moving to America—or at least Vancouver which is close enough. The two are plagued by a lazy recording engineer (Jacobs even more entertaining the second time around) who keeps stopping the session for a variety of self-indulgent reasons leaving Felipe and Kabira to get to know each other.
The second act is the more interesting of the two and also the more straightforward — there’s no more narration or dance and no more needless shifting of the timeline. Unfortunately it’s also the harder of the two to get absorbed in. There’s almost no time to come to feel for the characters and so Garcia and Majumdar are forced to rely on their stage presence rather than genuine empathy. It’s a shame because these two characters do have a lot to say and the play’s themes are better integrated into the narrative here than they were in the first act. But as the play creeps towards the two-and-a-half hour mark and as the characters keep incessantly humming the same melody it’s more difficult than it should be to stay engaged.
In a way the play’s title is actually a little ironic. The phrase “same same but different” is usually used to describe knock-off fashions — this bag is exactly the same as a Louis Vuitton just different. Same Same is no knock-off. It’s a thoroughly distinct work from a unique voice in Canadian theatre. As different as it is though its biggest problem is that too much of it just feels the same.