nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
August 15, 2004
Epic Actors’ Workshop presents Ashvatthama by Manoj Mitra at the Connelly Theater. Performed in Bengali with English supertitles, it is based on the Hindu epic poem, Mahabharatha. It explores the horrors of war and the devastation wrought when sides are embroiled in a cycle of retaliation and revenge. It is certainly not a new topic, but it is a subject of considerable timeliness, and it is capably executed by four talented actors.
In order to understand the theatre piece, it is important to read the synopsis of events labeled “Prologue” in the program. Mahabharatha is a complex epic and, according to the press release, is often called the “Iliad of India.” The play takes place at a very specific point in time and the exposition is most necessary. Ashvatthama is the only surviving warrior in a battle between two rival factions of the same family who are warring over the rule of North India in about 3000 B.C. When the play begins, he has just returned from a devastating defeat and expects to have to surrender. He then concocts a scheme of deception to murder the enemy generals while they are sleeping. This dishonorable act, executed offstage, has a devastating outcome.
Reminiscent of many of the classic Greek dramas, the main events occur offstage and the onstage time is spent mostly in dialogue about prior events or in contemplation of future deeds. During these dialogues, the acting is very focused and heartfelt. One actor in particular is astounding in his emotional honesty: Mahmood Hoshen Dulu who plays Kripacharya, the Brahmin counselor and conscience of the army. I really thought I was seeing into his soul through the extraordinary window of his expressive eyes.
It was difficult to keep track of the dialogue because of the constant shift in focus from the stage to the supertitles. But since the acting was well done, I could get a good sense of the story from the emotional context. I do think, however, that there is too much dialogue. Even not understanding Bengali, it seemed that there was redundancy. I think the play would work better at one hour than at ninety minutes.
The subject matter is one we must keep coming back to, as we humans seem not to be learning our lessons about the agonies of war. It was disheartening to see so small a crowd in attendance. The Epic Actors’ Workshop is producing vital theater. I encourage them to produce in English as well as Bengali, perhaps even a mixture of the two—their audience would certainly expand accordingly.