ACT's latest production is a world premiere by an American- and British-trained playwright about the game of cricket, in particular women's cricket, and it spans three centuries and two continents in a brisk 90 minutes.
Testmatch marks the first time that ACT has presented the work of Kate Attwell, and the play is directed by ACT Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon. Attwell's work, though, has been widely seen in New York, with commissions at Playwrights Horizons and Ensemble Studio Theatre, and work developed at the Public Theater and New York Theatre Workshop, among others.
The piece is divided into parts, or acts, with no intermission, and in the first we're introduced to two national women's cricket teams, England and India, with three members of each retreating to a locker room area after their match is rained out. As they wait to find out if they'll be allowed to play again, their backstories and interpersonal dramas are teased out. We learn, for instance, that one of the Indian players is a lesbian and has hooked up with one of the English players in the recent past. Also we learn that one of the English players, known only in the script as England 2 (Arwen Anderson), has just been dumped in a high-profile romance with a men's cricket player, and all she wants to talk about is the difference between "rugby boys" and "cricket boys."
There is talk of cheating scandals, particularly in the men's cricket world, and the underlying tensions of Britain's colonial past in India lingers over all this seemingly apolitical drama.
The second half of the play takes us back to the distant past — namely a decidedly less naturalistic scene of British lords working for the British East India Company in 18th Century Calcutta. Rather than present us with a rote, realistic period scene, Attwell has written more of a darkly absurd satire here, in which two lords (named simply One and Two) are at work finalizing the "official" rules of the game of cricket while simultaneously mismanaging Indian lands, conspiring to embezzle money from the East India Company, and planning to decamp soon back to England.
The contrast in tone, style, and content is striking and funny, and it doesn't take but minutes to cast a new angled shadow on the present-day scene we just watched — here's where it began, Attwell seems to be saying, the day the rules were set for this game borne out of colonialism, a game over which England and India still have their tiffs. And the historical moment we're seeing is the Bengal famine of 1770, in which 10 million Indian people died. At first we get only hints from the estate's butler Abhi — played by one of the actresses from first half, Lipica Shah, now wearing an obviously strapped-on mustache and red British military coat. He alludes to chaos and devastation just outside the walls of the estate, which lords One and Two are blissfully unaware of. We also learn mysteriously that there are "no more mangoes" and "no more papayas," and lord One's wife, Memsahib (Madeline Wise), comes in asking for more opium for her "feminine" pains, and later comes onstage to deliver a poetic junkie fever dream of a monologue.
We're also treated to a moment when a young character, Daanya (Avanthika Srinivasan), shows off her bowling skills to the lords, and connects to the past to the present in terms of women's interest in and skill at cricket.
Anderson and Millie Brooks are hilarious as the two bewigged lords, who at one point exit stage right when one says to the other, "Want to go have a wank onto giant piles of money?" And Wise is as moving as the opium-addicted colonial wife as she is cunning as a present-day cricket jock.
Meera Rohit Kumbhani, who does a convincing turn as the "best bowler in the world" in Part One, returns at the end of the second half as an envoy from Bangalore who has just witnessed the horrors of the famine firsthand, across hundreds of miles of the country. She delivers a powerful, sweeping monologue that serves as the play's indictment of the entire East India Company enterprise, in which food crops were ripped out to make way for opium and indigo. And it serves as an effective microcosm for two centuries of British rule in India.
MacKinnon's direction strikes a terrific balance between the authentic and the absurd, with the choreography of the second act being especially challenging. And the set design by Nina Ball makes terrific use of white-painted brick and green linoleum to double both as the indoor locker room space and the 18th Century walled garden.
And despite the strangeness of the subject matter in the first act (women's cricket), especially to an American audience, Attwell does an excellent job of laying out the important details and rules of play without being didactic. Her aim of using cricket as a metaphor is a brilliant one. As she said in an interview with MacKinnon, "Cricket is tied to the conversation about empire... There's no other sport that has the same DNA... Cricket as ended up in this weird realm in which it's only the British and all of its formerly colonized nations who play it." She notes the inherent "trickiness" of the sport, which dovetails with talk of politics. And, she says, this history in Testmatch is just one of the conversations in which she thinks contemporary people can untangle "this big, tangled knot in our collective brains" when it comes to the wrongs of the past.
The play left me looking up YouTube videos of women's cricket, and also realizing my own ignorance of most of this chapter of colonial history. But I also left impressed with the magic trick Attwell pulls off, schooling us without obviously doing so, and elucidating a complex historical relationship in miniature, with a winking acknowledgement that this isn't even the tip of the iceberg — or to borrow one of her characters' phrases, "A little too little too late."
'Testmatch' plays through December 8 at the Strand. Find tickets here.