"SHAKUNTALA" is the single most famous play on the Indian subcontinent. It is for India what "Hamlet" is for the West and has been done in every possible style: on television, in dance dramas, in films. A love story about a king who travels to the countryside and meets a hermit girl, the dominant theme is erotic love and its contrast with spiritual union. The style is aggressive, sensual, assaultive -- no 19th-century "Romeo and Juliet." The play was written in 400 A.D., and was adapted from an episode in the "Mahabarata," one of the great Indian epics.
The specific plot of a story is an incidental part of Indian theater. Sanskrit theater is a performance form that combines all of the performing arts--story telling, dance, movement, music, acting, etc. -- to create a universal mood. More like a kind of circus than a traditional theater, Sanskrit theater uses color, movement, the sounds of music and rustling silk to express a mood. In "Shakuntala," the dominant mood is erotic longing.
The first task of a director is to define the performance style of a production. With the Sanskrit epic, that meant finding a movement vocabulary, several vocal deliveries, an acting style, and an improvisational relationship between the musician, the dancer and the actor. The search for the Studio Theatre's "Shakuntala" found me, nine months ago, settled into the back studio of the Indian Temple of Fine Arts observing rehearsals for a production of "Shakuntala" in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I had arrived in Malaysia for a five-month working visit to study Indian classical theater and to bring "Shakuntala" back to Washington.
Many of my days were spent pouring over research material at the University of Malaysia, studying Hindu culture, Sanskrit literature, and a variety of translations of "Shakuntala." I decided that Bharata Natyam would be the basic movement form for our production. Bharata Natyam is a 3,000-year-old Indian dance form that uses a language of specific gestures and powerful, rhythmic footwork to tell a story. A solo dancer and a drummer work together, almost like a marriage on stage, to tell a story and express emotions. I enrolled in dance classes and my patient teacher and I spent long hours reading over the script of "Shakuntala" to mark those words and actions that would be enhanced through gestures.
A friendly Indian drummer named Krishnamurthy suggested that we search for costumes and props for the production in Singapore. Once there, he led us to Serengyn Road, famous for its similarity to the vast garment district in Madras, India. We visited about 20 shops where he bargained for the best prices. Faced with luxurious Indian silk, only the utmost in restraint kept us from devastating our production budget. I returned to Kuala Lumpur not only with silk and cotton but also with bags bulging with clay pots, peacock feathers, glass bangles, collections of nose rings, brass bells, black hair braids, and a collection of "Shakuntala" comic books.
With a new adaptation in hand, and 500 pounds of costumes and props packed and air-freighted, I returned to Washington in July anxious to begin bringing together designers, actors and musicians to work on "Shakuntala." Casting in D.C. produced an ensemble of 28 actors, musicians and dancers. The multiracial cast includes skilled experts in Bharata Natyam, a professional Indian drummer and actors who have worked in theaters around the city.
No two shows are ever alike in conception, rehearsal and performance. But sitting here, with the sounds of Indian dancing pounding above me, the melodies of a bamboo flute accompanying an actor singing in a now familiar style, and a massive, intricately carved Indian temple rising behind me, I realize just what a unique, exciting experience mounting this production has been.