Shakuntala and the Ring of Recognition
nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
February 12, 2010
The Magis Theatre Company's version of Kalidasa's Shakuntala has a fun energy, celebrating this important ancient Indian play. The play tells the story of Shakuntala, a young woman from a hermitage, and the king, Dushyanta. They fall in love, only for the pregnant woman to be forgotten by her husband through a spell. Director George Drance has created a number of elegantly arranged sequences with choreographer Saju George, and a gorgeous set by Gian Marco Lo Forte utilizes the height and depth of the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa. But unfortunately, this Shakuntala offers little opportunity for connection; although it may propose that we treat rejection lightly, Magis is Latin for "more"—and I wanted more.
There are a number of strong moments directorially. The opening sequence, where Dushyanta is hunting deer from his carriage, is wonderfully rendered through graceful coordination of the large cast to create a moving carriage and frolicking deer. The transitions between scenes in the first act use a number of shades that reconfigure for different settings, providing effective, quick shifts, to replicate almost television-like simultaneous action. In the moment of recollection, when Dushyanta sees the ring of his beloved and recalls their entire relationship, offstage voices repeat in a cacophony the scenes between the lovers we have witnessed in Act 1.
Lo Forte's set is dynamic and beautiful: a large deep space with a decorated border on the floor, big hanging legs, some dimly lit trees that belong in a dream, and an amazingly dark background that could become transparent with lighting to provide very distant action, or disappear altogether. The distance between actors and audience in moments when depth is utilized feels epic and magical.
Jazz saxophone music by Rudresh Mahanthappa is distinct and consistent with the cheery atmosphere, while adding a hint of eeriness and tension.
Soneela Nankani as Shakuntala provides a note of comparative sincerity, contrasting with the play's otherwise generally distant characterizations. But even Nankani is not given the opportunity to really dig into the central conflict of the play; the story of Shakuntala and Dushyanta somehow does not feel like the driving action of the piece. Stylistic choices sacrifice it. There are in particular two moments in the play involving sunglasses where the style shifts dramatically. When we first encounter Dushyanta's court, there is a dance in which sunglasses-wearing palace dwellers make it feel like an LA party. And at the beginning of Act 2, two actors in leather jackets and sunglasses speaking like New York cops enter into a long chase scene where the man they chase keeps making funny faces to the audience. Although the chase is interestingly arranged, it's at odds with the play's otherwise unified style.
Large choreographed gestures can be a strong risk, which occasionally pays off, but only the most skilled performers communicate effectively through them (such as Nankani). I was frustrated by Walker Lewis, whose King Dushyanta is strangely daft and hesitant. Lewis fails to offer himself emotionally; potential emotional barriers are his over-emphasis on consonants, panting and other odd breath excretions, and over-smiling. Special notice is merited by Josey Flyte, in her various roles, whose dedication even as a doe-eyed doe reverberates warmth.
Shakuntala is about being forgotten by loved ones. This production's airiness seems to indicate that relationships are passing phenomenon, and disaffection is to be regarded in dispassionate kind.