It has been almost a quarter of a century since Stephen Belber’s Tape first opened in 1999, and in the intervening years, the #MeToo movement brought to the fore the issue of consent, ‘no means no’ and such slogans.
Aakash Prabhakar directs a new production, without adapting it, so the location and period remains as it is in the original, which makes it slightly anachronistic, because tape recorders are nearly defunct. The core of the plot that has to do with memory and conflicting emotions, however, remains relevant enough.
The play is set entirely in a shabby motel room, in Michigan, where Vince (Prabhakar) is meeting his high school buddy Jon (Nishank Verma). After the initial greetings, the room practically crackles with a strange hostility, which Jon is unable to fathom. The dissimilar trajectories of their lives could partly be the reason– Vince is a small-time dope dealer, Jon is a documentary filmmaker whose latest work is part of a film festival.
However, Vince keeps referring to an incident in the past that involved Jon and their school mate Amy (Priti Shroff) and during their angry dialogue, Vince tape records the confession of a misdemeanor Jon committed back then.
Amy and Jon recollect the incident in different ways, and it is possibly Vince’s jealousy that kept him obsessing about it for 10 years — Amy was his girlfriend before she broke up with him and hooked up with Jon. There is also a kind of socially inherent chauvinistic mindset that assumes that for a woman an act of casual sex should mean more than it does to a man, and that she should be damaged by it somehow.
When the men come to blows, Amy arrives, for a dinner planned with Vince. They talk about that fateful night, what really happened and how it impacted the three. It remains unsaid, but it was perhaps guilt or remorse that turned Jon towards activism through his documentaries; Amy’s internalized anger may have led her to law and her career as an assistant district attorney; Vince’s heartbreak may just have caused him to become a loser in life.
This is pop-psychology speculation, but the fact is that any part of personal history that is sought to be erased could have long term repercussions. But then, as the great Kurosawa film Rashomon, so eloquently conveyed, the same event can be interpreted and remembered differently by the people concerned.
All this is a lot to pack in an 80-minute play, tempered with dark humour, and full credit to the playwright for this twisty text with realistic dialogue.
Interestingly, Tape was turned into a film by none other than Richard Linklater, with Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard—a lot more claustrophobic than the play, because on stage all action taking place in a single room is acceptable.
As director Aakash Prabhakar keeps up the tempo of verbal volleys between the characters; as Vince he has the meatiest part and he walks off with the play, the other two struggling to keep up with his malevolent energy. It was a good choice of text to pick up, particularly because after the lockdown, the less active theatre groups have to look for plays with fewer actors and unfussy sets, for the production to make financial sense.
(This piece first appeared in mumbaitheatreguide.com)