There's a lot to like about the Rogue Theatre's season opener, Mistake of the Goddess, a play by Indian writer, actor and filmmaker Girish Karnad. Joseph McGrath, artistic director of Rogue and director of this production, explains in his director's notes in the program that he discovered this play when the Rogue's cast of its production of Shipwrecked traveled in the summer of 2012 to India, where they had been invited to perform. It captivated him, and he thought it would be a perfect fit for Rogue.
And it is. Overall, they have done a good job, introducing us to unfamiliar material in a rather unusual, stylized sense of theatrical storytelling. The production values are solid. The set and costumes create a compelling visual impact; the use of music, performed live, adds another element that complements and supports the storytelling. The performances for the most part are solid, if not electric, and the substance of the play gives us much to think about.
Yet, I am of two minds about this production. I appreciated the attention to the details that comprise good theater. The stories (there is a story within a story here) are interesting and appealing. Generally, I enjoyed the production. But, although the play is far from humorless, the evening as a whole feels a bit ponderous. The play itself yields a sense of hopefulness, but there is a heaviness in how it lands. As a whole, there seems to be less a sense of joy in the telling as there is a self-consciousness about its import. It feels more a matter of the intellect than a matter of the heart. And for theater in our tradition to be fully effective, the latter is where it must originate within its producers and land within the audience.
This is particularly interesting because the substance of the play is an exploration of identity. Which defines who we are, head or body? Intellect and reason, or the passion that is fueled by the body, which is the home of the heart? It is about a search for wholeness created by the piecing together of disparate, sometimes conflicting parts.
The play, which is also called Hayavadana, or "horse face" begins with a "naandi," a traditional invocation of divine blessings from Ganesha, the elephant-headed god who "who is the destroyer of obstacles, who removes all hurdles and crowns all our endeavors with success." A wonderfully striking likeness of the god, created by Matt Cotton, lends a watchful eye to the proceedings. There is a narrator, Baghavata (Cynthia Meier) who guides us, and sometimes comments on, what we witness. We are introduced to Hayavadana (David Greenwood), who has the head of a horse (another wonderful creation by Cotten) and the body of a human, a most unhappy man who longs to be rid of his head and be a whole human. This story is actually drawn from Thomas Mann's The Transposed Heads, which itself is drawn from one of the Sanskrit Kathasaritsagara stories. It's a way in which Karnad intertwines the traditions of East and West.
The narrator sends Hayavadana to see a goddess about his problem, and then the core story of the play begins. We learn what happens to the horse-man in the closing moments of the play. It's a convention that frames and underscores the central story.
Devadatta (Ryan Parker Knox) is a Brahmin, a poet and intellectual. His best friend, Kapila (Matt Bowdren), is of a different caste. Uneducated, but strong of body, he favors physical pursuits. The beautiful, but self-centered, Padmini (Marissa Garcia) marries Devadatta, but is attracted to Kapila's well-put-together physique. When Davadatta notices Padmini's wandering eye, he becomes jealous and beheads himself at the temple of the goddess Kali (wonderfully and wackily wrought by Patty Gallagher). When Kapila discovers headless Davadatta's body, he beheads himself. Padmini then discovers both headless bodies, and she beseeches Kali for help. Kali instructs her to place the heads with the bodies and says she will work some magic. However, Padmini, in the darkness, mistakenly places Kapila's head with Davadatta's body, and Davadatta's with Kapila's. Kali brings them back to life—but who is Padmini married to? Davadatta, whose head now possesses Kapila's personality, or Kapila, who appears to be Davadatta?
Karnad wrote this play in the early 1970s and, according to McGrath, it is a metaphor for how the many parts of India's land and culture, torn and transformed by years of colonialism, needed to reorder themselves, establish themselves anew. What was India now, as colonialism gave way to democracy but left its indelible imprint? This aspect of the play's substance would not be clear to us without explanation; it is not obvious in the material that comprises the play. This background adds a dimension of appreciation of what Karnad is about, but it is a bit of insight far from necessary for us to appreciate the piece. The quest for identity and wholeness and the conflict of body and mind is well-understood by all of us. And it's this quest that makes the tale relevant.
This is an impressive undertaking by the Rogue, with many thoughtful and well-wrought elements contributing to theater done well. Particularly effective is the music that musical director Paul Amiel, fellow musicians Eric Schoon and Anton Shekerjiev, and singer Jenny Hijazi weave into the story. The piece does feel a bit long. It has a measured pace that is partly a function of its style, but which could be tightened without undermining or interfering with it. Perhaps as the run continues, and all involved become more comfortable, and elements continue to gel, that sense of self-consciousness will be diminished and the heart of the piece will beat stronger.