BHOPAL by Rahul Varma, directed by Guillermo Verdecchia, with Tom Butler, Brooke Johnson, Michael Miranda, Imali Perrera, Yashoda Ranganathan, Errol Sitahal and Sugith Varughese. Presented by Cahoots Theatre Projects in association with the Theatre Centre and Teesri Duniya at the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). Previews begin Saturday (October 18), opens Wednesday (October 22) and runs to November 9, Wednesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm, student matinees October 24, 28-30, November 4-6 at 1 pm. $15-$25, Sunday pwyc, student mats $12. 416-504-7529.
Actor Yashoda Ranganathan's spent the past few years getting out of her head and into her body. Now, in Rahul Varma's Bhopal - inspired by the tragic 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide factory in India - she's going back into analytical mode, taking in the media reports and facts of the event and its aftermath and turning them into emotionally charged theatre.
"When I finished theatre school at the University of Alberta, I approached acting intellectually," recalls Ranganathan, who grew up in North York. "Sometimes over-analyzing got in my way. Back here in Toronto, directors like Guillaume Bernardi and Soheil Parsa showed me how to begin working in my body and then into the text.
"Now I tend to approach a part from a physical rather than an intellectual angle. But since this play requires that we discover what happened and what details are vital to present, there has to be an element of analysis in my work."
Ranganathan's Izzat Bai, a slum-dweller living near Bhopal's Karbide International plant, is a focal point for the two related stories Varma tells. One deals with the devastation to individuals, the other with the condescending attitude Western nations have toward developing ones.
Izzat is the metaphoric bone fought over by a Canadian doctor, an Indian politician and the chemical plant's CEO. Regular cover-ups and excuses made by those in power are part of the tale's thread.
Still, the piece is far more than a dry recounting of facts and statistics.
"As an actor, my job is to take in the historical information but then let the facts go and present what's in the script," she's quick to add. "The history becomes a backdrop for the work, which explores where my character goes and what she feels."
Ranganathan is one of the most watchable, focused actors on the Toronto stage. In Ma Jolie, she played an Iberian statue that inspired Pablo Picasso's angular Les Demoiselles D'Avignon.
"It was a chance to be still onstage for 10 minutes, doing no more than breathing but making it interesting for the audience. I relied on meditation and yoga to centre my work."
In The Daughters Of Sheherzad, she portrayed a fiercely independent Iranian woman persecuted for her heretical views and stepping outside the traditional female role.
In the past few months Ranganathan played multiple characters in the physically based Meeting Playce and a tour guide of Colombia's past and present in For Sale. The latter show reunited her with Beatriz Pizano and Michelle Polak, with whom she first collaborated in Parsa's The Daughters Of Sheherzad.
"We can connect onstage so easily," Ranganathan smiles, "especially when the connection involves sisters, mothers or daughters."
She appreciates Parsa's visceral response to creating theatre, whether it's a new piece like Daughters or rethinking a classic such as Macbeth. She travelled with Parsa's Modern Times Theatre to a festival in Iran to present the latter.
But the director who's most influenced Ranganathan's work is Bernardi. She collaborated with him in an adaptation of Alice Munro's story The Progress Of Love and in a striking production of Six Characters In Search Of An Author, in which she functioned as narrator, reciting the stage directions and turning them into evocative echoes of the play's action.
"Guillaume is always trying new ways to present stories. He knows what he wants and finds unusual methods of getting actors to that place. He knows how to evoke the feel of the text in a non-literal way, using movement that's suggestive of the text and the mood behind it."
The technique asks Bernardi's collaborators to be versatile and realize that what they do isn't necessarily going to make conventional sense.
"School taught me to be an actor, but directors like Soheil and Guillaume taught me how to be a performer. A script like Bhopal marries the two styles."