Cricket – a sport created by England and played today mostly by the mother country and countries of her former Empire – becomes the backdrop for Kate Attwell’s Testmatch, now in its time-traveling, gender-bending, hard-reality-and-parody-prolific world premiere at American Conservatory Theater. A Pandora’s Box of issues bursts open in the course of the ninety-minutes, including colonialism and its horrific initial and long-lasting effects, racial tensions and profiling, disparities between professional men’s and women’s sports, the lure of money and resultant cheating in professional sports, and hard-hitting issues for LGBTQ people in the public eye.
So many issues spring at us that it is easy to begin feeling shell-shocked and confused. While humor embedded in both the script and in the choices of Director Pam Mackinnon plays a big role in unearthing and stirring these topics, parody eventually takes over so outrageously that the method of presentation becomes too much the focus and muddles rather than sharpens the issues raised. The first-half present-day portion of the no-intermission evening is both hard-hitting and funny as well as overall entertaining and effective; but when the scene goes back in time in the second half, exaggeration to the point of near absurdity lessens the play’s overall impact.
The play opens in a locker room in Britain as a women’s World Cup cricket match between the Brits and India has been delayed due to a field-soaking rain, a match that India is so far winning. We meet the captains and two players from each team – all identified in the program only as 1, 2, and 3 for each nationality, something I found confusing and meaningless. Our fly-on-the-wall perspective allows us to listen in on the chitchat, the braggadocio, and the juicier parts of the locker room talk among these professional players of two nationalities as they speak in heavy, native accents. We laugh with them as they argue in those accents about the correct phrasing of “a little too late” and when India 1 (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) remarks that the pouring rain “makes the whole of western history make more sense,” noting (in a paraphrased version), “If I lived here, I would escape, too.”
England 2 (an exceptionally powerful Arwen Anderson) is hyped up about the differences between male cricket and rugby players as potential bedmates, jumping around to list a number of XXX-descriptive, f-word-filled ways why the rugby guys are better sex partners than cricketeers. A young, somewhat under-sized India 3 (Avanthika Srinivasan) is pumped that “we’re playing against England” and keeps reminding anyone who will listen that this is the “biggest game” ever.
Everyone is frustrated about the rain, but the English captain and the world’s Number One batsman in women’s cricket (England 1 played by Madeline Wise) is the most sullen, tense, and pissed about the rain, taking it seemingly personal – so much so that she suddenly erupts into a bat-smashing fury. Immediately, the room shifts from locker-room chitchat into a whole new realm of implied and explicit racial/national insults, intra-and inter-team confrontations, and surprising revelations and threats. And thus opens the Pandora’s Box referenced above, with issues spilling all over the concrete floor of the locker room.
But just as things have heated up with everything from cheating temptations to blackmail now on the table, our modern-day players begin changing costumes and putting on new make-up as the scene abruptly transitions to inside a walled compound of the British-owned, East India Company of the early 1800s. England 2 and 3 (Arwen Anderson and Millie Brooks) have become a ridiculous-looking pair of EIC officials that are a cross between two Humpty Dumpties and Twiddle Dee/Twiddle Dum (their bulging white outfits with powdered wigs whose bands clearly show being only part of the evening’s costume creations by Beaver Bauer). The two speak in highly exaggerated English accents, move about with cartoonish flairs, and freeze in facial expressions that pull their features to rubbery extremes.
The English clowns are trying to solidify the ‘ruuuuules” (so they say) of cricket before England 2 leaves India for home with his pockets stuffed with money gained through the illicit dealings of him and his mirrored partner in crime. Taking notes while responding to barked commands is a uniformed, mustached Abhi (Lipica Shah, formerly India 2) whose eyes grow to stunned, black saucers as the Indian official listens incredibly to the boorish banter of the two. A little girl named Daayna (Avanthika Srinivasan) scales the wall in order to bring her cricket expertise and skill to the scene (with the two Brits stuttering over the very idea of girls playing cricket). However, it is a Messenger (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) from Bangalore who brings vivid descriptions of a dire famine outside the compounds walls and across the country that shifts the focus. Cricket takes a backseat to a situation the EIC has created by inducing/forcing Indian farmers to forego rice grown for a nation’s food to more grow poppies for the EIC’s opium trade. Suddenly the two clowns are no longer that funny.
Along with the game of cricket, the hunger for money that leads to cheating in the first half of the play and the hunger for big profits at the expense of a starving nation in the second half link the bookending scenes of Testmatch. Kate Attwell’s new work has intriguing lure in its unique approaches to raising awareness and questions about the historical origins of current difficult and important issues. At the same time, the world premiere at American Conservatory Theatre feels like a work still in progress as the playwright and this production explore how far to push to the extreme caricature and lampoon in exposing those many, different issues.
Rating: 3 E
Testmatch continues through December 8, 2019 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Tickets are available in person at the Geary Theatre Box Office, 405 Geary Street Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday or at the Strand Box Office Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (or curtain). Tickets are also available at 415-749-2228 and online at www.act-sf.org.
Photos by Kevin Berne