"Shakuntala" is a Sanskrit drama dating from the third century that the Studio Theatre has attempted to translate and transpose to this century and country. The result is an unusual evening in the theater that has charm and vivacity, but poses questions about the esthetic value of imitating another culture.
Classical Indian theater happens on many levels: dance, song, spectacle, and oh, yes -- plot, in this case a tale of love gone wrong and then right again. To an Indian audience the story of Shakuntala would be familiar: She is the daughter of two Hindu gods, raised by a holy man in a hermitage. She is spotted by King Dushyanta, who woos her, wins her, and then leaves town, having given her a ring and, unknown to him, a baby. When she tracks him down, he doesn't remember her, and she has lost the ring that might jog his brain.
Fleeing in shame, her heart broken, she is taken in by good spirits, who eventually lead the king to her and to the recognition of his previous knavery. They are reunited, and with their son, who is destined to rule the kingdom, live happily ever after.
Director Joy Zinoman, who has lived in Thailand and Malaysia with her husband, a foreign service officer, has adapted the ancient prose and verse play, imported a crate of fabulous Indian costumes and jewelry, found dancers with some knowledge of the classical Indian dance Bharata Natyam and musicians to play the tabla, flute and harp. The text is both spoken and intoned, accompanied by graceful gestures that have an effect similar to hand-signing.
The cast, with the exception of one musician, is Western. It has obviously been schooled in Indian dance and music, and there are moments--particularly when the delightful Ketia Semia is flitting around as the nymph Sanumati, when the vibrancy, beauty, humor and spectacle of the subcontinent is captured. The stunning brilliance of the silks, laden with gold borders that flash in the light, and the steady beat of the tabla are evocative and exciting.
But one needn't have spent time in India to question this enterprise. The conceit -- to produce authentically an Indian play with American performers -- is daring; it is also rather arrogant. The Indian culture is one of the oldest and most distinct in the world, and no matter how many weeks of rehearsal they might have, Americans cannot shed their culture and slip into the skin of another.
A person trying to explain Indian music once said that Western music is based on the notes of a piano, while Indians can play the notes in the cracks in between. India has an entire dance discipline devoted to the muscles in the face. Indian classical dance is as rigorous as ballet, and requires as much training. A classical play like "Shakuntala" is a synthesis of a variety of Indian arts. So how does one judge an American imitation produced in a few months of rehearsal?
The erotic element of the play is almost completely lacking in this production, perhaps a casualty of this cultural paint job. The songs lack the sharp whine of Indian music, although several performers like Rob Storrs and Gerry Crowley have pleasing voices. Russell Metheny's set is lovely and appropriate.
As Shakuntala, Gail Sawyer is graceful but not sinuous. Vincent Brown as the King is imposing in appearance, but has a toneless voice that drags his chanted lines. Semia and Ron Canada, in dual roles as a modern couple presenting the show to the audience and as Hindu gods, are filled with puckish humor and set just the right tone. Richard Hart is quite good as the clown Madhavya. And tabla player Murli Pai is clearly the mainstay of the small orchestra.
SHAKUNTALA, based on the Sanskrit play by Kalidasa, adapted and directed by Joy Zinoman. Design by Russell Metheny; costumes by Henry Shaffer; lighting by Kenneth Thane Wilson. With Nancy Johnson, Stewart Carerra, Murli Pai, Tim Chambers, Rick Venable, Mary Ruberry, Ron Canada, Ketia Semia, Robert Daley, Gail Sawyer, Sandra Smith, Nakita Tebang, Irving J. Engelman, Phyllis Baker, Rob Storrs, Gerry Crowley, Janet Antonelli, Debra Kasoff, Vincent Brown, Raoul Anderson, Richard Hart, Stephen Wallace Haines, Brent Davis, Chris Haley, Renee C. Hutchinson, Lisa Mobley, Duane Ouri, Michael Puri, and William Shank.
At the Studio Theatre through Nov. 7.