Art

When every actor wears ‘mask’ to hide their secrets

scene

A stage act at the Kenya National Theatre. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Liquid Entertainment’s latest production, entitled Masks Off and staged last weekend at Kenya Cultural Centre, was an entertaining romp that also sent out a mental health message meant to be taken seriously.

Yet the mental health message was mixed with money, mayhem, political machinations, and masks worn by practically everyone in the play, and scripted by Eric Munene.

Masks notably conceal faces but also people’s hidden motivations. In Masks Off, it’s easy to see the secret motivations of the corrupt politician Mweshimiwa (Felix Peter) who literally throws money around as a means of obtaining more by devious tricks. It’s even easier to see the masked motives of Dr Charlie’s ex-girlfriend Deborah (Nora Adisa) whose heart she broke by leaving Charlie (Blaze Mathenge) at the altar to go after the rich politician.

In fact, almost everybody in the play is keeping secrets behind a euphemistic ‘mask’. Ironically, it’s the newly hired waitress at Drew’s Hotel that seems to see through all the masks.

Drew’s Hotel is where all the action happens in Masks Off and it’s Sophia (Vivian Nyawira) who not only provides the marvellous comic relief in the play. She also has a cunning knack for calling out con-men and women for their scams. It’s practically unimaginable to think that she has the best concealed mask of all, which is only removed at the play’s end.

It’s Sophia who tells off the pregnant beggar bag-lady (Mary Muthee) who scams Drew to get free meals. She also sees the scam being set up at Drew’s by the Mweshimiwa and Charlie. The only clue to Sophia’s personal con-artistry is the way she seems innocent as she seduces Drew into falling for her.

Masks Off can easily be seen as sheer entertainment and comedy. It’s more likely to be listed as a subtle satire since the show critiques everyone from fat-cat corrupt politicians like the Mweshimiwa to slay queens like Deborah. There’s even a swipe at the Covid regulations which set off what mental health experts call the ‘trigger’ that could lead to dire circumstances.

Drew is upset because the lockdown rules will kill his small business. This is the reality of many SMEs that have shut down completely due to losing their client-base during the lockdown.

Prior to the pandemic, Drew looked like a kind, compassionate guy who didn’t even seem to mind being conned by the pregnant mama. In fact, he may be the one character in Eric Munene’s scripted play who doesn’t wear a mask. Unfortunately, without that cunning guile, he becomes the most vulnerable to a mental breakdown like what we see at the end of the show.

What’s most peculiar and disconcerting about Masks Off are the two inexplicable characters who open the play. It takes some time to figure out what role they have since they don’t seem to be interacting with any one character. As it turns out, they are meant to signify conflicting thoughts. But even after that seems to explain their erratic presence in the play, one can’t immediately discern whose thoughts they represent. Whether they are poorly cast or badly scripted, one cannot be sure they are even necessary characters in the story since Drew himself is quite transparent. His intentionality is plain. He’s got no deep dark secrets, only that he wants to succeed in his business.

Okay, the two are meant to reflect Drew’s thought process, with Steve Majestic representing Drew’s good conscience and Stella Napanu representing the bad.

Nonetheless, they seem disengaged from their man. They bicker unnecessarily any time they appear. The only time their voices make sense is when they try to counsel Drew during his apparent breakdown. They don’t succeed since the so-called ‘catalyst’ to his breakdown has already arrived in the form of Dr Charlie bringing him a fake ‘official’ letter (part of the rich politician’s thieving scheme) claiming Drew’s Hotel had to be inspected, and if he failed the inspection (carried out by Dr Charlie whom we already know has been bribed) he was to be evicted. After that, the politician would take over his place and build his property empire.

Finally, in Masks Off, it’s the comedy itself that masks the serious issues being addressed in the show. The play doesn’t preach but it definitely exposes how little things in one’s life can trigger disturbing consequences. In Drew’s case, he becomes a would-be murderer. But Dr Charlie survives and makes off with millions left behind by Drew and found by the craftiest crook, Sophie.