'Maximum India' features a bold take on Ibsen, reading of Indian short stories

A MYTHIC SPIN ON IBSEN: Chorus Repertory Theatre's "When We Dead Awaken."
A MYTHIC SPIN ON IBSEN: Chorus Repertory Theatre's "When We Dead Awaken." (Thawai Thiyam)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Two theater entries in the Kennedy Center's "Maximum India" festival blew extremely hot and cold over the weekend. The Chorus Repertory Theatre offered a furnace-blast take on Henrik Ibsen's "When We Dead Awaken," while Motley Theatre Group coolly told three tales by short story writer Ismat Chughtai in "Ismat Apa Ke Naam."

The performances could not have been more different. Chorus Repertory, led by adapter, designer and director Ratan Thiyam, put a heavily mythic spin on Ibsen's final play, and why not? "When We Dead Awaken" is a symbolic lament about an aging sculptor who agrees to split from his free-spirited young wife once the shade of his old muse glides onto the scene. Creativity, regret and independence are the themes, and Ibsen ends it all with an avalanche wiping his characters off their idealized heights.

Knowing the play beforehand was an advantage watching Thiyam's version in the Eisenhower (where it played Friday and Saturday), for while the actors howled at one another in Manipuri, the English translations on the surtitle screens were few and far between. That surely led some viewers to feel they were missing out, but in fact the production seemed far less concerned with linguistic nuance than with gesture, ritual and a very high performance style.

One of the most dramatic changes Thiyam made was to turn up the flame under Ibsen's generally meditative script. As the sculptor and his young wife, R.K. Bhogen and the actress Sachi screamed invectives at each other, with Bhogen's discontents as the artist also finding expression in an occasional stamping, kicking movement across the stage that played like regal fury. There was bitter wit, too, as the young wife bellowed insults through the horn of an oversize gramophone placed center stage.

The catfight cried for relief after a while, though, and it came through the cartoonlike thought bubbles carried on by the chorus. This brought the sculptor's original love into the picture (as well as the savage hunter who sweeps the young woman away, though Thiyam had little use for this figure), and when actress Indira began to dance a remarkably liquid undulating movement, the muselike seductiveness of her old relationship with the sculptor was clear.

If this "Dead" was intriguing but challenging fare for the uninitiated, the direct and charming "Ismat Apa Ke Naam" ("In Celebration of Elder Sister Ismat") was like a relaxed party that even outsiders could enjoy. The performance, in Hindustani, drew rich and consistent laughter from the knowing crowd at Sunday night's performance, the last of three over the weekend in the Family Theater. The surtitles translated enough for non-Urdu speakers to keep up - though surely not even half of Chughtai's language, which star Naseeruddin Shah announced was unchanged.

Shah, an acclaimed actor best known here for film roles in "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and "Monsoon Wedding," was enthusiastically greeted as he took the stage before the show to explain that Chughtai's stories sparked controversy over her long 20th-century career. No doubt: The three moral tales on view merrily yet compassionately traipsed beyond the strict boundaries of conventional decorum.

Heeba Shah, Naseeruddin's daughter, told the story "Chhui Muee" - a study in contrasts as a rich woman perpetually miscarries while an urchin not only gives birth on a train but cleans up after herself - with an engagingly bemused tone. Ratna Pathak Shah, Naseeruddin Shah's second wife, provided a velvety delivery of "Mughal Bachcha," which told of pride and pressure as a dark-skinned man shied away from his fair-skinned bride for decades.

Naseeruddin Shah capped the sure-handed evening with an impish, delighted rendering of "Gharwali," a cat-and-mouse romance between a young bastard woman of "legendary promiscuity" and the smitten but prudish man whose house she covets (and lovingly cleans). It was a charismatic, funny performance, and despite Shah's program note pointing out the "severe scarcity of new original dramatic writing in India," the celebration of Chughtai was a joyful success.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

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