Saturday, May 6, 2017

Karma and Dharma Visit India

Every now and then, a simple decision made half a century ago delivers unexpected dividends. During my undergraduate years at Brooklyn College, I was lucky enough to take two courses in comparative literature from a professor who put Auntie Mame to shame. Thanks to the intoxicating worldview of Anna Babey-Brooke, one of those courses (Indo-European Myths and Legends) exposed curious students to readings from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Golden Bough, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Mahabharata.

Pastries created for a fertility ritual

Unlike those raised in a culture which stresses that America must always come first (and should be considered a Christian nation), I stumbled through the joys of learning about primitive fertility rites, gods of vegetation, the gender fluidity of mythological creatures who could fertilize themselves, and the transformative effects of karma and reincarnation. I also learned that an entire universe of art existed that was free from Judeo-Christian influences. Whether looking at gods with eight arms or elephant heads (or discovering the erotic works of gay artists like Sadao Hasegawa), that introduction to Asian cultures broadened my horizons beyond any and all expectations.

A drawing by Sadao Hasegawa

Some of us are more amenable to mischievous monkey gods than others. In 2008, when Nina Paley's animated fantasy (Sita Sings The Blues) hit the film festival circuit, I felt like I was visiting old friends from the Ramayana as Sita, Rama, Hanuman, Lakshmana, and Ravana went about their adventures.

I recently attended opening night performances of two works that rely upon magical realism, exotic soundscapes, refreshing metaphors, and religious ideals markedly different from those espoused by America's fundamentalist Christians. Both stories take place in India long before the United States became a nation. As a result, these emotionally challenging and artistically enlightening evenings were able to guide their audiences on storytelling adventures whose heroes learn to embrace humility rather than hubris. In these stories, going "into the woods" has absolutely nothing to do with Stephen Sondheim.

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In 1985, the Brooklyn Academy of Music's executive director, Harvey Lichtenstein, teamed up with Peter Brook to create a nine-hour adaptation and staging of the Mahabharata. Brook recently revisited the work to stage scenes from the nearly 2,500-year-old Indian epic on a minimalist set with costumes designed by Oria Puppo and lighting by Philippe Vialatte.

American Conservatory Theater is currently presenting Battlefield, Brook's collection of several vignettes from the Mahabharata which address the timeless recurrence of war and the inevitable destruction that follows in its path. For Westerners who fetishize the Bible as the most important book ever written, it's important to remember that the Mahabharata (one of mankind's great pieces of epic poetry) contains 100,000 verses, is roughly 15 times as long the Bible, and is approximately seven times the length of Homer's most famous epic poems (Iliad and Odyssey) combined.

Because of the complex family histories and difficult character names in the Mahabharata, it's easy for Western audiences to have difficulty following the various subplots and ancestral roots in Battlefield. The main characters portrayed onstage are:
  • Kunti (Carole Karemera), a Princess of the Kunti Kingdom who first gave birth to the great warrior Karna (whose father was Surya, the sun god) and later married King Pandu
  • Yudhishthira (Jared McNeill), fathered by the god of dharma and the first son born to Kunti following her marriage to Pandu. Having defeated Karna, the guilt-ridden Yudhishthira has become the ultimate victor of the Kurukshetra War (which was estimated to have killed more than 700 million soldiers).
  • Dhritarashtra (Sean O’Callaghan), Yudhishthira's uncle who was born blind because his mother closed her eyes while being impregnated by his father. Dhritarashtra spawned 100 sons (the eldest named Duryodhana) as well as one daughter and is the reigning King of Hastinapur at the end of the Kurukshetra War. 
A scene from Peter Brook's Battlefield (Photo by: Caroline Moreau)

Battlefield begins as Dhritarashtra's long-time friend (Ery Nzaramba) informs him that, with the war finally ended, it is time for the two men to part company. After Yudhishthira enters flush with triumph, his mother informs him that his enemy was actually his older brother. Kunti and Dhritarashtra explain why Yudhishthira is obligated to pay his respects to Karna.

What follows is 70 minutes of simple, yet masterful storytelling in which Yudhishthira (who is reluctant to assume the throne after having helped to cause so much carnage) visits his grandfather, Bhishma (Ery Nzaramba) prior to the wise old man's death. After Bhishma convinces his grandson that he fought a just war, Yudhishthira bids farewell to Kunti and Dhritarashtra (who wish to spend their final years in the forest) and becomes a kind ruler who understands and embraces his dharma.

A scene from Peter Brook's Battlefield (Photo by: Caroline Moreau)

With a small ensemble and minimal props, Brook's production shapes the storytelling with remarkable simplicity so that the audience can grasp the moral dilemmas faced by a mother who has kept one son's identity a secret for many years, her other son's need to come to terms with this shocking revelation, and the ways in which the truth will impact his outlook on life. Concepts of loyalty, integrity, and respect for one's elders (sorely missing from today's MAGA mobs) almost seem exotic as they thread their way through a narrative that has no need for toxic displays of masculinity. Among the production's impressive assets are the percussive pleasures of musician Toshi Tsuchitori's drumming as his fingers create magical musical bridges between scenes.

One could easily wonder why, having staged a nine-hour version of the Mahabharata that rocked the theatrical world, Brook would subsequently create a stripped down version of the story. The answer lies in the poem's relevance to today's world.

"We wanted to speak about what happens after the battle. On both sides, the leaders go through a moment of profound questioning. The ones who won say 'Victory is a defeat.' The ones who lost admit that they could have prevented that war. In the Mahabharata, at least they have the strength to ask those questions," stresses Brook. "When you do something clumsy and wasteful and ugly, it's less good than if it is finer and cleaner. I have always said that I am not an artist. I'm an artisan, which means that (like all artisans from bakers to shoemakers to weavers) I try to do my trade better, so that it can be judged by simple criteria which anyone can recognize."

Performances of Battlefield continue through May 21 at the American Conservatory Theater (click here for tickets).

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Up in Mill Valley, the Marin Theatre Company is presenting the regional premiere of Guards at the Taj under the direction of Jasson Minadakis. Using a handsome unit set designed by Annie Smart (with costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt and lighting by Mike Post), this production benefits immensely from the musical score and ornithologically influenced sound design by Chris Houston.

Rajiv Joseph's one-act play (which received its world premiere from the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York on June 11, 2015) is one of those blacker than black comedies in which two men of no importance -- like Hamlet's friends (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) or Beckett's fools (Vladimir and Estragon) in Waiting for Godot -- find themselves grappling with weighty affairs that refuse to wait.

Friends since childhood, Humayun (Jason Kapoor) and Babur (Rushi Kota) are Imperial Guards of the Great Walled City of Agra who are "sworn to the Eternal Dominion of His Most Supreme Benevolence, Emperor Shah Jahan." They have spent half their lives guarding the construction site of a great white marble palace that they are forbidden from gazing upon.

Rushi Kota (Babur) and Jason Kapoor (Humayun) in a
scene from Guards at the Taj (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The object of their dedication is, of course, one of the world's most revered architectural landmarks. Commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1631, it took nearly 17 years for the Taj Mahal  (the mausoleum that houses the tomb of the Mughal emperor's favorite wife) and its surrounding complex to be built. Joseph's play takes place in 1648, shortly before the project was finished and the public allowed to witness the building's beauty for the first time.

As the play begins, Humayun is anxiously standing watch on the dawn patrol. As usual, Babur is running late. The two characters offer a distinct contrast in personalities. Humayun suffers from low self-esteem, insists on strict adherence to the rules of duty, and has little if any sense of humor. Quite priggish about the discipline required of Imperial Guards to maintain order, he is acutely aware that he may not speak or lower his sabre and must always face outward from his post while on duty (never turning around to look at the building rising up behind him).

Convinced that his father (the Chief of the Imperial Guard) yearns for his defeat, Humayun is quick to recite the punishment for such offenses as blasphemy (which can result in a short stay in jail), sedition (which can range from 40 lashes with a whip and having one's head shaved to being sewn into the hide of a water buffalo and left in the sun for seven days), and treason (death by elephant). In essence, he is a bland, Hindu nerd from the 17th century. In another incarnation, Humayun might be a risk-averse bureaucrat, an accountant, or an engineer.

Jason Kapoor (Humayun) and Rushi Kota (Babur) in a
scene from Guards at the Taj (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Babur, however, is an eternal optimist blessed with an insatiable curiosity and childlike imagination. Although not as skilled at identifying bird calls as Humayan (who can easily tell the difference between the sounds made by a chickadee, sandgrouse, and red-breasted jibjab), Babur is spontaneous, easily distracted, and often finds it difficult to keep his mouth shut.

Not only can he envision flying palanquins capable of transporting people through the sky, one of his favorite fantasies is to have his own transportable hole within which he can hide himself on a moment's notice. Another is to be assigned to guard the king in his harem (which Babur believes must be filled with compassionate whores).

Rushi Kota (Babur) in a scene from Rajiv Joseph's
Guards at the Taj (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Alas, fate is not kind to Humayun and Babur. As the stars fade and light begins to fill the sky on the morning of the Taj's unveiling, Babur is the first of the two guards to disobey orders and gaze in awe at the building's beauty. Following that rapturous moment (which is every bit as magical as the beginning of Act III in Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Richard Wagner's "Forest Murmurs" from Act II of Siegfried), Joseph's play takes a dark and deeply disturbing turn.

According to popular myth, Shah Jahan insisted that, in order to prevent the beauty of the Taj Mahal from ever being surpassed, the 20,000 craftsmen and manual laborers who built the structure should have their hands chopped off. In one long night of sadistic butchery, Humayun behands 40,000 arms while Babur cauterizes their stumps. By the time they have finished, blood is everywhere, with an occasional severed hand rising from the bottom of what was once a pool of clear water.

Rushi Kota (Babur) and Jason Kapoor (Humayun) in a
scene from Guards at the Taj (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Although the chorus of bird calls remains the same, the two men's lives have been drastically changed. When Humayun announces that, because they carried out their orders and performed so well, they will be promoted to guarding the king's harem, Babur's fanciful imagination turns to revenge. Refusing to be remembered as the man who killed beauty, he decides to kill the king, instead. Sharing his thoughts with Humayun (who is incapable of lying to his father) seals his doom.

As the initial blue and orange tones of the production's set and costumes darken to the blood-soaked hues of Humayan and Babur's night of horror, the two men struggle to comprehend what they have done and what sinister forces could have allowed them to be complicit in such a gruesome crime against their countrymen. Whereas Humayan views their butchery through the eyes of someone who was "just following orders," Babur cannot accept his friend's cold-hearted rationalization.

Jason Kapoor (Humayun) and Rushi Kota (Babur) in a
scene from Guards at the Taj (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Audience reaction to Guards at the Taj will, of course, depend on how squeamish any attendee is at the sight of blood. My perverse sense of humor focused on a much happier thought: Wouldn't compassionate whores have their own transportable holes?

There's no doubt that Rajiv Joseph (who wrote Animals Out of Paper, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, The North Pool, and The Lake Effect) is skilled at building suspense and making clever use of magical realism and a dark sense of humor as he seduces audiences out of their comfort zone until the stage is bathed in gore. Although Guards at the Taj will leave some people deeply shaken, it accomplishes an extremely important theatrical goal in today's troubled times: to make people think about beauty, depravity, and how much of one should come at the cost of the other. Here's the trailer:

Performances of Guards at the Taj continue through May 21 at the Marin Theatre Company (click here for tickets).

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