Acting guru does 17-in-1

CHAMELEON: Jacob Rajan plays 17 characters in romantic thriller Guru of Chai.

By Luke Voogt

One actor plays 17 characters in a fourth-wall-breaking tale weaving through modern India’s contradictions of iPhones and ancient gods.

“That’s what any half-decent storyteller will do,” said Jacob Rajan, a self-described a “buck-toothed chameleon” channelling every character in his romantic thriller Guru of Chai.

The Kiwi actor had played the characters since before winning best actor and play at New Zealand’s Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards in 2010 for the show.

“By that time you’re not getting into character; the characters are screaming to come out of you,” he said.

“They’ve been with you for that long you can’t wait to release them onstage.”

The tale begins with a loathsome and devious but profound guru setting the scene of six sisters abandoned at a railway station.

“He’s so revolting and charming at the same time and he’s so open and engaged with the audience,” Rajan said.

“The real story is what’s happening between him and the audience in the room.

“They become really invested in what’s going and what’s happened in the past to get them to that point.”

A poor chai-wallah’s (tea server) life changes forever when one of the sisters brings the station to a standstill with the beauty of her singing.

Rajan originally set out to write a children’s play on Indian fairytale Punckin but decided the content was a “bit too dark for children”.

“Sort of like the original Grimm fairytales – they’re quite violent.”

But then a colleague suggested he switch to a modern setting and the play “morphed into its own thing”.

“Seven princesses abandoned in the jungle becomes seven sisters abandoned at a railway station.”

Eight of Rajan’s characters are female in the play.

“There’s the easy out of doing caricature of a man playing a woman and playing it rather badly,” he said.

“But to actually embody that physicality and voice of a woman when you look like me, that’s challenging.”

The son of Indian immigrant parents, Rajan “stumbled into drama school” but subsequently discovered little work available in theatre.

So he started theatre company, Indian Ink, and began writing plays for himself.

Adam Ogle joins Rajan in the play as mute sidekick Dave in a role which won him Chapman Tripp award for best music.

Ogle plays banjo, drums, whistles and even uses plastic bags in his one-man ensemble.

“The audience is watching him make the sound and watching me to react to the sound – it’s kind of old school theatre,” Rajan said.

“That plastic bag when you mic it up sounds like rain. You could close your eyes and hear the story quite comfortably.”

Guru of Chai runs at Geelong Performing Arts Centre from 31 July to 3 August.

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