Friday, October 03, 2008

The Clay Cart in Ashland

The phrase that kept coming to mind as I watched this ancient East Indian comedy -- Bill Rauch's introduction of non-Western fare to OSF and a kind of sub-continental commedia dell-arte -- was "overproduced children's theater."
That's harsh -- the production has many fine points, a moving last scene, and it's stuck in my head since last night -- but let me explain.
The Clay Cart was written 2,000 years ago. It's full of stock characters. Open playing space, perhaps two dozen in the cast, usually seated on the perimeter, recliningn on pillows, watchign their fellow actors throughout. People jump up, and wham! they're a gambler, they're the king's brother-in-law, they're the guy who guards the door. Playful. Gorgeous set: golden circular playing area ringed by dozens of golden Hindu statues; three dozen exotic lamps hanging from above (and they all swung in unison during the thunderstorms!); three live musicians at the back; a giant foot from some unseen gigantic statue; a blue runway that circled the playing area and was used for "trips" from one location to another. Stock characters, stock situations: commedia-style.
Long and episodic, the structure just felt like one damn thing after another. Very didactic: they hammered home the idea that character matters more than caste, that wealth does not make your virtuous, that selflessness is the highest form of virtue, and so on. Yes, I know. And yes, great literature often boils down to simplicity: Othello: jealousy is bad. But this kept hammering away at it, as if we were a bunch of children. Pretty to look at, mostly well acted. Raspy-voiced Miriam Laube (too giddy-in-love as Rosalind in a Depression-era AYLI here a couple seasons back, was practically born for the central role of the courtesan (accomplished in singing and dance; cf. geishas in Japan).
Plot turns on coincidence: clever, but over-elaborate. Still, the final scene, with one dispensation of justice after another (when it had appeared that the virtuous wouuld be punished and the wicked would get away with it) was surprisingly moving. A final prayer for virtuous leadership, that we should take care of our poor and live honestly in all ways: good reminders. But at 2:45, it was a long sit for platitudes.
Right next door, Dan Donohue was playing Iago. Did I make the wrong choice?
Richard Howard was fantastic as a thief (I saw him as Richard II here in '95, as Gaev in Cherry Orchard here last year -- almost unrecognizable -- and he's in great shape -- there's a lot of skin shown in this play. In an extremely erotic and non-explicit sequence, Laube stripped off her jewels one by one and desposited them one by one into the hands of her eager lover (Cristofer Jean, as the impoverished but virtuous merchant here; a quirky, rebellious Ariel in the Demetra Pittman-as-Prospero Tempest here a few years ago).
So I would have written a mixed review. But for the money, I want more than just stock characters. And all that didacticism -- it felt like we were being talked down to. A lot of stock situations were predictable.
But boy those Hindus are great categorizers: there are 10 types of drama about humans (as opposed to dramas about the gods), and four skills that any actor must possess, and about 27 dialects in the play, and three central gods, and on and on ....

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