'Testmatch' at A.C.T. No Sticky Wicket

Avanthika Srinivasan shows off her bowling style in the players lounge in Kate Attwell's Testmatch at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater. (Kevin Berne)

Embodying A.C.T.’s 2019/2020 season theme “Rules of Play,” Kate Attwell’s lively Testmatch gives Women’s International Cricket a moment in the spotlight and explores its imperialist underpinnings with a smart one-two. With a cast of six, and a centuries-long timeline, Testmatch careens from point to point like a runaway strike. And while the ball doesn’t always land as expected, the result is a mostly rewarding event, buoyed by a committed squad of assembled players.

This world-premiere production, directed by A.C.T.’s Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon (who will also direct the baseball-centered Toni Stone in March), opens in the “players lounge” of a Women’s World Cup Cricket match. The teams are England and India, facing off in what the Indian team terms a “massive” game, eager to put the Brits down on their home turf. But the vagaries of English weather have put a damper on their ambitions, and the players are forced to sit around, drink tea, and bicker about their stats as they wait for the rain to stop.

Millie Brooks, Arwen Anderson, Lipica Shah, Meera Rohit Kumbhani, and Avanthika Srinivasan faceoff in the players lounge in Kate Attwell's Testmatch at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater. (Kevin Berne)

Their sharp-tongued banter ricochets around Nina Ball’s minimalist set with plenty of penetrating wit. In short order, they dissect romance, honor, and cricket strategy without missing a beat—or an opportunity to elicit laughter, both comfortable and not. As captains of their respective teams, Meera Rohit Kumbhani and Madeline Wise command special attention. Kumbhani is a master of the wordless side-eye that speaks volumes, while Wise uses her natural gift of height to physically dominate the room. Inevitably the tension boils over, and humorous snark gives way to a simmering stew of resentments, racist invective, and accusations. Within the tumultuous unraveling, McKinnon skillfully inserts moments of heavy silence that drive home the stakes better than any right hook.

Millie Brooks and Madeline Wise confer in the players lounge in Kate Attwell's Testmatch at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater. (Kevin Berne)

But suddenly, without warning, we’re whisked away to a Victorian-era British East India Trading Company compound in Calcutta, where Arwen Anderson and Millie Brooks are transformed into fatuous members of the company, and Lipica Shah as their put-upon footsoldier/secretary, Abhi. Primarily concerned with clarifying the official rules of cricket for posterity, while outside their walls a famine rages, Anderson and Brooks play their callous colonialists with cartoonish bombast, while the put-upon Shah observes their antics wearily from behind a gigantic mustache.

Lipica Shah, Arwen Anderson, and Millie Brooks record the rule of the game in Kate Atwell's Testmatch at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater. (Kevin Berne)

The audience gets a brief lesson in cricket terms and an even briefer download of the rapacity of the EITC, creating an awareness of British colonial misrule as well as the complicated relationships former colonies have with British influences, then and now. There’s a reason, Attwell suggests, that the only countries that have kept cricket alive are in that category (the fact that matches can take up to four days to play possibly being another). By playfully examining the evolution of the game to show how structural effects of colonial rule linger into the present, Attwell delves into a complex chapter in history without pedantry.

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Throughout the second act, Anderson and Brooks waddle through their buddy comedy with a shameless surfeit of self-awareness, and the other three members of the cast shine in their secondary roles: an opium-addled memsahib (Wise), an emissary from Bangalore (Kumbhani), and an astute bowler from the village (Avanthika Srinivasan). It’s humorous and giddily irreverent, but feels increasingly less inspired as the pace, as well as the pith, flags halfway through.

Arwen Anderson, and Millie Brooks as members of the British East Indian Trading Company in Kate Atwell's Testmatch at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater. (Kevin Berne)

In effect, Testmatch feels like kin to Megan Cohen’s Free For All, which recently debuted at Cutting Ball Theater. Both employ satire, bawd and cross-dressing to comment on elitism, capitalist overreach, and the patriarchy while pitting the undeserving powerful against the underserved poor. But there’s a tentativeness to A.C.T.’s production that doesn’t quite allow it to reach absurdist extremes. The ending doesn’t shock the system as feels intended, and the overall effect is decidedly less devastating and more benign than a truly scathing societal critique.

But Testmatch does give its audience a chance to wrestle with the implications of empire amid questions of honor, teamwork, and what divides us. It also underscores a fresh commitment to ambitious new works under the A.C.T. banner. Wholly contemporary, unapologetically experimental, and emphatically feminist, Testmatch is a way of testing San Francisco’s appetite for same. Hopefully this means we’ll get to revisit Testmatch in a future iteration, and that A.C.T. will continue to give similarly audacious work an artistic home in the seasons to come.

 

'Testmatch' runs through Dec. 8, 2019, at the Strand Theater in San Francisco. Details here.

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