Heartstrings’ experimental chorus ‘kills’ the characters


A scene from “Identical Twins”, a more orthodox Heartstrings production. / William Oeri

You go to the theatre expecting full throttle action, some buoyant characters struggling against a dramatic tide and some semblance of a storyline. That could be true of traditional theatre, but not the fresh experimental theatre that Heartstrings and other drama outfits are experimenting with.

Experimental theatre in its full glory is considered a higher cadre of theatrical performance because it often ignores traditional parameters in efforts. It is intended to spice up the act with fresh ideas.

In some other spaces, experimental theatre is placed in a lower caste and termed amateur theatre, especially in cases where it is as a result of inadequate resources to sustain the discipline of traditional theatre.

Some of these original ideas in experimental theatre are too outlandish to arouse and sustain audience imagination. They fail to engage the audience. This is in cases where the artists and the audience do not share the language codes.

On the opening night of Kenyans Made In Heaven— which is set for a re-run, Heartstrings seems to have killed her characters in favour of a sort of a chorus. The storyline is a bit abstract— even non existence in some cases.

In these freestyle productions by Heartstrings — let us refer to them as otherwise theatre— strict respect for grammar and traditional form, even aesthetics is clearly missing.

Told through a mishmash of jokes, traditional and not too traditional melodies; dance, narration and some imitation of traditional mime, Kenyans Made in Heaven struggles to reconstruct the creation myth as played in the imagination of a researcher, who seems to play the narrator if not a co-narrator.

It is the portrayal of a frustrating struggle by one man trying to unravel the mystery surrounding the “eighth day of the creation”. With a litany of misunderstanding, confusion and indifference through his journey, the man fails miserably.

The drunken narrator who tried to stitch the different patches that made Dare Kenyans To Love and even Let Kenyans Be Kenyans reappears in this production as a new being.

Dressed in white from toe to head, the self -proclaimed researcher has assumed a new and pedagogical sounding role in his attempt to understand religion. Though still philosophical and tackling several issues of the day, the man leaves a trail of sermons along the way.

Like his shift in dressing, the man with several saintly proclamations takes the audience through the creation mystery as depicted in the Bible. In some instances, the narration is spiced up by some illustration or enactment that does not fit a dramatic billing that most theatrical stuff display.

Though most of experimental theatre relies heavily on lighting, scenery and special effects, Kenyans Made in Heaven does not attempt to walk that path. It is a minimalist set that keeps mutating depending on the situation.

Familiar jokes
Even with the disjointed patchwork, Kenyans Made In Heaven offers intermittent opportunities to crack.

The familiar jokes that sounds like another mchongoano session put the production within its frame in terms of time and place. In the narrative, environmental issues come into the discussion as does Kenya’s political mess and insatiable greed.

On religion, the different faiths are put in focus with traditional African faiths appearing in their flamboyance as depicted by the overflowing costumes and even music and variety of agile dance steps.

But even with all these stage theatrics, it is still not clear what the whole production intends to say. It ends abruptly in what seems like a stillbirth— but remember its experimental theatre.

With 15 years experience on stage, Heartstrings Kenya has become one of the biggest stage attractions alongside Festival of Creative Arts.It was set up in the 90s when theatre was not an attractive option for people looking for entertainment. Most drama companies offered farces.

On their menu were regulars like Caught in the Net and such that later earned the label “underwear theatre”.

With stiffer competition especially from Festival Of Creative Arts, Heartstrings Kenya has eventually introduced experimental theatre under the Kenyan series marketed as a Churchill productions.

With his fame as a TV and radio comedian who appears in Churchill Live, Churchill, whose name is Dan Ndambuki easily attracts a lot of attention. This way, the Kenyan series has easily found its niche in a market that has been getting too farcical.

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