A woman peering in at the margins of a black hole waiting to be engulfed by its utter nothingness (or singularity, as it were) is one of many dreamscapes populating Jyoti Dogra’s Black Hole, the work she has been exhibiting nationwide. In it, the theatremaker is both an intrepid intergalactic giantess and someone whose smallness of being is beginning to overwhelm her in unfathomable ways.

Almost unexpectedly, this vast stretch of imagination is rendered plausible with the help of just a white sheet (described by Dogra as a ‘co-actor’) that vacillates between metaphor and utility with aplomb — a security blanket one moment, the shifting sands of time at another, or a bottomless pit that holds portents of struggle and redemption alike. The performance is supported by Anuj Chopra’s elegant light design, which also brings into play rudiments of dynamic projection mapping, and Neel Chaudhuri’s exquisitely breathing and whispering soundscape.

In the prescient backdrop plays out the narrative of a woman, reading out science manuals as bedtime stories to her terminally ill mother. These interludes are designed to be deeply affecting, and often hit the right registers emotionally. Dogra, at times, takes on the persona of the gravelly-voiced Hindi-speaking mother, adding texture and profundity to otherwise glib scientific pronouncements. In embracing the literal, the mother displays the quasi-religious fervor of the newly converted. However, when the more disbelieving daughter (also Dogra) stands in as the receptacle and regurgitator of pop-scientific fact, the textual material stays within the realm of the simplistic and the superficial. This persona is an anxious narrator teetering on the edge of debilitating self-apology and is perhaps an easy (but facile) surrogate for audiences, reminiscent of a similar character in Dogra’s earlier Notes on Chai.

She shares a Doll’s House vibe with her husband P, well-meaning and obtuse, who incenses her to bouts of rebellion that wriggle and writhe before fizzling out. Thankfully, Dogra abandons this avatar midstream and settles into a more self-assuredly cerebral presence, and the play’s engagement with science is taken to a much more transcendental plane. What is remarkable about the play, apart from the sheer artistry on display by its chief architect, is that it allows us to breathtakingly experience time (the ‘temporal dimension’) with all its urgencies and longeurs. However, Dogra’s unsatisfactory shifts in personality, from an accessible manqué to an unrelenting identity capable of moving mountains, are not affected in the mien of a journey, and so present themselves as the tug-of-war between essentially gendered selves.

It speaks of, at some level, the manner in which women dress up their works only in order to make them more accessible, and not without cost.

It’s a dichotomy visible in a spectrum of female solo performances. From #Womanologues, where a male director and male writers keep its resolutely likable women in ‘manic pixie’ mode, to Amruta Mapuskar’s Rapid-I-Movement where, once again, it is the world of dreams that feeds it its contradictions and dilemmas. Mapuskar is a radiant presence on stage, her flickering face alive with expression, and the light design by Bharavi arrestingly washes over the surreal if unpredictable moodscapes of bedtime reveries. Here, Black Hole’s tug-of-war seemingly presents itself in reverse, and Mapuskar appears out of her depth when she finds herself in a dream delivering a TED Talk on ‘hard-core neuroscience’ none too lucidly.

The piece employs nudity — an airport ‘pat-down’ getting more and more invasive — but rather than giving the performer ground beneath her feet, it strangely makes the character appear more oppressed.

Maya Krishna Rao’s Loose Woman is an exception that might prove the rule but also sets up a riveting escape plan. Here, the elemental woman can rely on both instinct and intellect, revel in creating discomfort and unease even if she ultimately hypnotizes the gaze of those watching. Playing out a series of improvisations, Rao is a force of nature, both stoic and fierce, who tugs at our visceral strings, much more a performer inciting a response by representing a manifestation of herself, than an actor playing a part. The piece itself might well be an acquired taste, at once engrossing and demanding of some endurance, but a rock-heavy soundtrack by Sumant Balakrishnan adds to Rao’s edginess and devil-might-care spiel, which can be both listened to intently or taken purely as aural texture. Here is an unbridled character who refreshingly doesn’t appear to be playing to anyone’s expectations.

This article was originally published in The Hindu on August 9, 2019, and has been reposted with permission.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.