Friday, November 14, 2003

Power virtue: Ideals keep society's wheels rolling

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In the duty-bound and caste-rigid northern India of the fourth century, ideals still governed the behavior of every individual, and a sense of obligation ruled the world. Spirits of nature abounded; all living things were truly alive. In today’s America, self-interest governs all — even the most powerful — and nature makes way for humanity in a brutal slaughter of trees and fouling of the air.

It is into this soiled arena that King Dushyanta (Dave Ciampa) and Shakuntala (Piper Silverthorne) bring their penance grove and wedding bower. The powerful king, whose son has been prophesied to rule "the ocean-bounded Earth," encounters the virtuous half-nymph, who lives in a holy hermitage.

The pair fall in love, but duty calls each to other tasks. First, they elope, wedding in a ceremony witnessed only by the woodland and its creatures. Dushyanta gives her his signet ring as a token of remembrance.

As they each return to their lives, Shakuntala is so overcome by emotion that she neglects her obligations of hospitality toward a powerful guest, who curses her: The king will forget ever meeting her until she produces something to remind him.

When she goes to his royal court, the king rejects her; she is clearly pregnant, and his virtue will not allow him to covet another man’s wife. Worse, she has lost the ring that is the key to his memory.

Set to Indian drum and flute music and chanting by Amos Libby of Portland (a longtime student of the Indian arts), and couched within the good-vs.-evil struggles of ancient Indian manuscripts, Shakuntala and the Ring of Recognition is a wonderful, enchanting vision of a world where complex interactions are governed by simple principles that all remember and obey.

From the very beginning — a Sanskrit chant in praise of Lord Shiva, god of destruction and rebirth and patron of performers — to the final blessing of the audience, the play is a magical journey that has meaning for all ages and stations.

The set has extravagant detail, but remains a simple layout of a forest grove and several sitting areas allowing scenes outside the woods. The costumes — made of real silk purchased by costumer Jodi Ozimek on a special trip to New York — are sumptuous and beautiful, cloaking all the actors in garments worthy of their posts.

The actors are well rehearsed and handle difficult language with aplomb. This is, after all, Kalidasa, the Indian equivalent of Shakespeare. Director Assunta Kent has assembled the script from eight translations from the Sanskrit, and has reproduced the wit, wisdom, and beautiful imagery that has carried the original into modern times. (As a taste, consider this perspective on aging and memory: "My mind is like a lamp whose oil is getting low. It flares brightly one minute and then suddenly dims.")

The actors are also dancers, performing ritual footwork and hand movements used by Indian performers to tell their stories without words. While this play accompanies those motions with their spoken meanings, the experience is as in a fairy tale, where meanings are always made clear.

Yet this story is no fairy tale. Though its main character waters trees she calls friends and raises orphaned deer out of compassion, the king’s virtue is of a different form. He is a warrior, head of the lunar dynasty, and must fend off evil from the hermitage and join with the army of the sun god, Indra, to drive demons from the heavens.

The requirements of Shakuntala’s virtuous behavior contrast with the kingly duties of her husband. It is a lesson world leaders would do well to remember: "Vigilant kings who tax their subjects should tax themselves in protecting their subjects."

Once reminded by a fisherman’s recovery of his ring, the king is overcome by "Shakuntalitis," as the gleeful court jester (Jae Rodriguez) declares. He forgets himself and his role for a time, until recalled to duty and then rewarded by finding his beloved and his first-born son.

Of special note are the puppets — both three-dimensional and shadow varieties — created by Chelsea Cook, a USM junior, and Kris Hall. They provide elements of fantasy and fulfill the true role of theatrical performers: deepening the story-telling by expertly portraying story elements in eye-opening ways.

Shakuntala and the Ring of Recognition
Written by Kalidasa. Adapted and directed by Assunta Kent. With Piper Silverthorne, Dave Ciampa, and Amos Libby. At USM, through Nov. 16. Call (207) 780-5151.


• The Human Theater Company is putting on Tony Kushner’s eerily prescient play Homebody/Kabul at the Portland Stage Studio Theater through November 23. It explores the life of an Afghan-obsessed British housewife who ventures to Kabul and loses herself. Written before 9/11, it explores and explains many of the emotions Americans only discovered after that tragedy.

Laura Emack is putting her play Writers Block up for comment Saturday, November 15, at the Bangor Public Library, at 2:15 p.m., as part of a Made in Maine Theater Workshop. It looks at " the maddening marketplace " of writing and writers. Emack was a finalist in the 2001 Maine Playwrights Festival and just incorporated feedback from her writers’ group into the script. Lend your hand to this work in progress.

Tim Collins is back at the St. Lawrence with another multi-character solo piece called An Evening of One-Man Comedy. It’s on one night only, Wednesday, November 19, so seize the evening and check out this talented multi-personality performer.