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|About the Change|
Chorus Repertory Theater
by Renee Renouf
Chorus Repertory Theater (CRP) is what its title proclaims: theater dominated by a chorus. For repertory, it draws from Indian history and myth which have shaped not only the Hindu but the border state of Manipur. The capital Imphal, the site of the Theater's home, also claims director Ratan Thiyam as its native son. A theater space seating 300 will be completed this year, a peak in CRP's 25 years of existence. CRP also dances superbly.
CRP is more, gloriously so. Uttar Priyadarshi, an 80-minute exposition of Emperor Ashoka's redemption, is the transcendent vehicle the company uses to introduce itself to American audiences. U.C., Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall and U.C.L.A. constitute the only West Coast appearances. The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA; The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota; The University of Arizona, Tucson; Duke University, Durham, NC; The Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.; The Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York are also stops on this inaugural U.S. tour, co-produced by The Asia Society's Performing Arts Program and Lisa Booth Management. The incredible Rachel Cooper is tour manager with Indian critic Sunil Kohari as lively scholar-in-residence.
Ageya's authorship provided an added layer of complexity; for the verse was translated from Hindi into Manipuri for production. An unexpected difficulty Saturday night was a computer failure delaying the performance nearly an hour, perhaps accounting for the ghostly, yet still evocative side-lighting for the effective sparse lighting.
How to describe this incredible 1996 work which has toured throughout Southeast Asia and Australia? Underlying drama principles derive from conventions in Bharata's Natya Sastra, the Sanskrit dramatic treatise which attribution dates parallel China's Han Dynasty. These alone insure a stead fast core for this spiritual struggle and evolution. Back risers with center steps follow Sanskrit stage spatial divisions, for back and center of the stage usually belongs to the gods, walking from one location to another indicating a journey or the passage of time with scenery changes.
This says Ratan Thiyam has woven Manipuri performing traditions into his dramatic presentation. He has done so with extraordinary skill. My memory of Manipuri dance plus a brief week at Imphal in 1966 confirmed this unique impulse permeates the production, providing an intrinsic conviction with the actors' added training. Rotation of the hands from the wrist invokes water spirits which belongs to the metei, or the animistic, tradition still alive in Manipur. It adapts easily to the Buddhist theme. The high vibrato, minor-toned wailing of feminine voices, straight from the Metei rituals, is quite wonderful. It conveys with chilling effect the widows' desolate wandering on stage, swathed and wrapped like disconsolate mummies in white cotton saris. With the cymbals and percussion from Manipuri tradition, schooled in excellent declamation, the aural support of the visual imagery is utterly consistent.
The Opening: The chanting commences in darkness, setting an awesome mood. The light rises to reveal four monks, garbed in claret color of Tibetan monks. Carrying staves, they face the audience in kneeling position. Eight monks in saffron robes move across the upper level bearing circular emblems on poles, each a Buddhist image. They move down the steps. From them emerges the youthful Ashoka, bare to the waist with hips and thighs in a dhoti wrapped in a style traditional for dancing, head adorned with a circle with short plumes which sway as he dances in the dust. The child offers dust to the monk, the legend associated with the Buddha, who as a mendicant asks for alms. The dust is sanctified by the monk.
The claret robed monks each hand the youth his staff. As each one is relinquished the monk spreads his shawl until nothing can be seen except four joined oblongs of cloth, feet and the central poles, circling slowly off stage, a stunning image. The ritual chanting has been continuous.
The Battle Scene: Next Ashoka, astride his elephant, leads the battle at Kalinga. The warriors on either side of him on the upper riser are backed by lustrous, floating blue drapery. The rocking beast and swaying ears, armored between the eyes, with the repetitive hopping of the warriors, convey an inexorable rhythm of vastness, a host unstoppable.
The Celebration: Ashoka asks for celebration music from his musicians to extol his achievement. He is mocked by the monks. Ashoka casts aside his sword, repeating the request. The wail of the widows now greets him and the bereft women stagger, weave, collapse on stage. They emit a high pitched, minor-toned wail singularly Manipuri, the sound to spook the most cock-sure of mortals. After the women have staggered and groaned their way off stage, ceremonial red banners are borne forward, twisted around Ashoka's body, symbolic of the blood sea created during the battle of Kalinga,the imagery cinching the power of the production.
The Lord of Hell: Ashoka's rage is like a wounded animal, bereft of reason or caution. Despite pleas by the folk, he summons Ghor, appointing him the Lord of Hell. Ghor proclaims himself Mahakali, the Lord of Destruction, summoning his partners in devastation, witches and henchmen. The witches with long white tresses pivot from side to side, arms and hands an ominous filigree, the henchmen with wooden clogs slapped rhythmically. Ghor has made the kingdom into hell.
The priests are lured into hell where they are tempted by the witches who assume the guise of attractive women in festive Manipuri garments. The abuse is accomplished with the priests in the front, witch maidens along the dias. The torture is of a higher order, invasive of mind and spirit.
There follows a scene where the witches, reverting to tresses and robes, cackling and giggling, operate death weapons for criminals. The scene comprises the sole aesthetic clash for the literal nature of these weapons scrapes against the strength of the witches and the archetypal force the other symbols in the production provide.
A mendicant monk enters, conical hat adorned with cascades of beads. Ghor taunts him, but he manages to secure a place to meditate. Ghor sends his henchmen to destroy him, but are instead overcome. Ashoka describes with wonder the aura around the monk as "sweet fragrance."
Aided by the monk, Ashoka confronts his own inner dark side and Ghor is banished.