Many years ago, an aunt from LA stopped by in Ashland on her way to visit me here in Portland. She raved about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), but I thought it was the high school English teacher in her that was talking. In fact, the last time I had read Shakespeare was in high school. Due to an unforeseen transfer through three schools, I wound up studying the Merchant of Venice three years in a row. I can quote from that play, but my knowledge of the rest of Shakespeare is quite limited. Then, a few years back, when my kids were active in theater, my husband and I decided to visit Ashland. We discovered that there were some non-Shakespearean plays (a notable one was a slick production of “A Raisin in the Sun”), the town was idyllic with new-age shops and many food choices for vegetarians, and it had a Fourth of July parade that, let’s just say, swerved to the left. The whole family has been hooked ever since.
This year marked a changing of the guard for OSF, with a new artistic director – Bill Rauch, an advocate for community-based theater productions. He succeeded Libby Appel who had been the artistic director of the festival for twelve years. Rauch came with a new agenda – one that included exploring beyond the Western canon. For his inaugural year, he decided to direct a play himself – the Sanskrit play “The Clay Cart.”
One of the hallmarks of OSF is the unique way the theaters are transformed for each production. For “The Clay Cart,” the stage at the Angus Bowmer Theater was made into a circular one. Idols along the circumference of the stage evoked temple carvings. A multitude of lanterns (swaying to depict a thunder storm, once, during the course of the play) hung from the ceiling. An orchestra consisting of a sarod, a flute and tablas and playing East-West fusion music composed by Andre Pluess, occupied a discreet spot in the back. As a multi-ethnic cast walked into the stage to the melody of a male voice singing “May Shiva’s meditation favor thee,” the audience knew that it was in for an exotic treat. The actors touched the ground reverentially to grace the play and as they sang, each adopted a pose of Lord Shiva. Given that the choreographer appointed for the play is Kathak dancer Anjani Ambegaokar, director of Anjani’s Kathak Dance of India in LA, this traditional opening blessing ritual before a performance came as no surprise. In some ways, the whole play was like a dance drama, except that it was in English.
“Mrichakatika” or “The Clay Cart” is an ancient Sanskrit play ascribed to Śūdraka (even though just as it is for Shakespeare, there is some controversy about his authorship). A version translated by the renowned Sanskrit Professor, J.A.B. van Buitenen, was used for this play defined as a prakarana, or social comedy, a play about ordinary people. It’s the love story of Charudatta, a poor, noble Brahmin and Vasantasena, a courtesan who is besieged by the lustful villain Samsthanaka, the brother-in-law of the king. The clay cart is only a minor element of the play – its only role is as a toy of Charudatta’s son that Vasantasena fills with her jewels. More key to the story are the jewels which she entrusts to Charudatta for safekeeping. When these are stolen, Charudatta is distraught that he has failed her trust, and he sets out to compensate her with jewels his dutiful wife donates for the cause. There are more sub-plots – a gambler who becomes a Buddhist monk, a revolutionary who escapes, with events finally leading to a scene where Vasanatasena appears to have been killed and Charudatta, accused of her murder, is about to be executed. Not to worry – theater of that time apparently allowed only happy endings.
With its two-dimensional villain, mistaken identities, star-crossed lovers, witty dialogue (“Wisdom comes naturally to women, but men have to be taught with books,” a character says), the play had all the elements of Shakespearean drama. Where it differed was in the cultural context – bare-chested Brahmin men with their sacred threads and one with even a kudumi (tuft of hair on a shaved scalp), a courtesan who looked like she was straight out of a Ramayana TV serial, a woman, the mother of Samshtanaka carrying a large purse like any woman in modern India, and haunting music with Sanskrit lyrics translated into English. The play also had unusual theatrical techniques that seemed to me to be Brechtian. Pillows are used for scenic elements – a brick wall, a garden of flowers. Actors walking with a curtain hung on a pole represented a carriage, and the actor playing Charudatta (Cristofer Jean), with a frame around his face, represented a painting of himself. Actors removed props during the play, and even interacted with the audience – a gambler goes around the audience begging for gold pieces, and soldiers hunt for an escaped political prisoner. However, later I discovered that Brecht had actually been influenced by Asian theater, and this 2000 year-old play, after all, pre-dates both Brecht and Shakespeare.
I found some criticism of the play, with some people complaining that it was like children’s theater and other critics saying it was not polished enough, but I think that perspective depends on where you are coming from. For instance, the rationale for a romance between a married Brahmin and a courtesan was probably not something a Western audience could swallow very easily. Maybe a play like Kalidasa’s Shakuntala would have fared better. There were also a few cultural discrepancies – the courtesan (played by the gorgeous-looking Miriam Laube) seemed inappropriately playful for her character, and she also painted with her left hand – a major taboo. However, the sheer joy, energy and talent of the cast and crew, the attention to detail, and the incorporation of Indian music and dance by people who were new to those arts, made up for any flaws. Given that there were only a handful of Indians involved in the production, it was a valiant attempt at exploring another culture and an authentic demonstration of ancient Sanskrit street theater.
The five hour drive to Ashland is well worth the trip. Walking through the quaint houses in the neighborhood, exploring Lithia park, eating organic Veggie wraps in Pangea, or even venturing out on a side rafting trip with Noah’s River Rafting make Ashland a fun weekend getaway, even without the plays.
“The Clay Cart” runs through Nov. 2. To purchase tickets call 800-219-8161 or visit http://www.osfashland.org
Maitreya: Everything is lost!
Charudatta: Lost? She did not accept the necklace?
Maitreya: How could we be so lucky! No, she folded her delicate little hands at her forehead and took it.
Charudatta: Then why do you say that everything is lost?
Maitreya: Isn’t it lost? For a cheap gold box, which we didn’t eat or drink up, which was just stolen by a burglar, she has taken a pearl necklace that is the prize of four oceans!
Charudatta: Don’t talk like that, friend; we have but repaid the price of her great trust.
Maitreya: And I have another grievance friend. She winked at her entourage and hid her face behind her dupatta: she mocked me! And therefore, Brahmin though I am, I throw myself with my head at your feet and implore you to put a stop to your disastrous love. A courtesan is like a clod of earth that’s got into your sandal: you can’t get rid of it. They’re right in saying that a merchant who does not cheat, a village council that does not quarrel, and a courtesan who does not grab are hard to imagine.