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Empire of the Senses

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Indian Ink

Apple Tree Theatre

South Asian culture has long intrigued Westerners, but it's had a particularly high profile lately, even without taking into account the tensions over Kashmir. V.S. Naipaul (born in Trinidad but of Indian descent) snagged the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001 while best-selling novelist Arundhati Roy twisted a lot of knickers with her post-September 11 criticisms of imperialism. Monsoon Wedding has been playing for months at U.S. cineplexes (and the epic Lagaan at art houses). Even Andrew Lloyd Webber has gotten into the Bollywood act with the London production Bombay Dreams.

So it's not surprising that a local company would offer the midwest premiere of Tom Stoppard's 1995 play about the Indian subcontinent. And Apple Tree Theatre's almost perfect cast, under the intelligent direction of Mark E. Lococo, brings out most of the script's passion without sacrificing the intellectual conundrums in Stoppard's bittersweet cautionary tale about the end of colonialism and the rise of an Indian national identity.

Passion is not an attribute normally associated with Stoppard. Even when he tackles the subject of romantic and sexual desire overtly, as in The Invention of Love, he tends to handle the messy realm of the human heart rather gingerly, as if embarrassed that an astonishingly smart fellow like himself could be caught up in such mundane concerns. Surprisingly, though The Invention of Love (1997) is rife with arcane discursive lectures on Greek and Latin roots by closeted poet A.E. Housman, it's more popular in the States than Indian Ink despite that play's alluring setting and far more accessible and timely story. (Interestingly enough, Housman comes in for some ribbing in Indian Ink.) But since its 1999 North American premiere at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, the play has languished in comparison to Invention (and the brilliant 1993 Arcadia), earning neither a New York production nor extensive representation on regional stages.

Like Arcadia, the play jumps skillfully between two eras, illustrating the gaps between a life as it's lived and as it's recorded for posterity. The earliest sections of Indian Ink are set in 1930. Fictional English poet Flora Crewe has left behind her scandalous life in Bloomsbury (where one pompous male critic dismissed her as "a versifying flapper") for a holiday in India. Flora has bad lungs to match her bad reputation and has been advised by her doctor to seek warmer climes--though it's doubtful he had in mind the (fictional) malarial province of Jummapur. Flora soon befriends Indian painter Nirad Das, who offers to paint her portrait while she works on a new collection of verse. Through their banter, debates, and personal disclosures, the two forge a bond crossing various cultural lines, not just national but artistic: by making his principal characters a poet and a painter, Stoppard is able to explore the concept of rasa. As Nirad explains it to Flora, "Rasa is juice. Its taste. Its essence. A painting must have its rasa...which is not in the painting, exactly. Rasa is what you must feel when you see a painting, or hear music; it is the emotion which the artist must arouse in you."

The scenes between Nirad and Flora are intercut with scenes in England in the mid-1980s. Flora's only surviving family member, her sister Eleanor Swan, is sharing Flora's correspondence with eager-beaver American academic Eldon Pike. Reading her letters, Pike becomes convinced that a nude portrait of Flora must exist somewhere, in addition to the clothed portrait Eleanor owns (Eleanor discovers later that hers is by Nirad). Pike's hilariously picayune footnotes to Flora's letters provide some of the show's funniest, sharpest moments--and continue Stoppard's long-running diatribe against biographers. As Eleanor tartly observes to Pike, "Biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong." Nirad's son, Anish, also puts in an appearance on Eleanor's garden terrace, hoping to find out about his dead father's early life by viewing the portrait of Flora.

Anish engages in a lively debate with Eleanor on the lingering effects of British colonialism. "We made you a proper country!" she angrily declares. "And when we left, you fell straight to pieces like Humpty-Dumpty!" By contrasting these scenes with Flora's awakening awareness of the restless divides of Indian culture--between Muslims and Hindus as well as the British-educated Brahmans, the civil-service class, and the desperately poor--Stoppard provides a thumbnail sketch of the years before the bloody partition of 1947 and the country's continuing conflicts. In a brilliant choice, he ends the play with Flora reading a chilling passage from Emily Eden's 1866 collection of letters from India, Up the Country, in which she speculates upon the fate of smug British colonials who can't imagine that the natives will ever grow restless under the yoke of imperialism.

But what's most remarkable about Stoppard's script is its naked emotion (or rasa, if you will). His characters trade hankies as often as they do bons mots. All of them are in search of some secret they believe will complete and heal them. Anish yearns to connect with his father, who served six months in prison for anti-British demonstrations shortly after his acquaintance with Flora. Nirad's first wife (Anish is the child of a second marriage) died of cholera before Nirad met Flora. Eleanor, much as she bristles at Pike's proprietary attitude toward the sister who helped raise her after their parents died, also mourns the years when Flora labored over her verse in obscurity. "Nobody gave tuppence about her when she was alive except to get her knickers off," Eleanor fumes.

At its heart, Stoppard's play is about vulnerability in the face of political and social conventions, and Lococo's staging underscores that theme with grace and charm. The most obvious example is Susie McMonagle's brief nude scene as Flora. Overcome with fever, she tosses off her clothes matter-of-factly and begs Nirad to douse her with water, providing a window on both Flora's casual sensuality and her worsening physical health: she hasn't the time or strength to observe social niceties even if she were so inclined. The irreverent poet isn't above taking some tactless digs at Nirad, mostly at what she sees as his hopeless Anglophilia--he worships British writers from Dickens to Agatha Christie. Pike's research trip to Jummapur destroys some of his preconceptions about Flora, stripping him of many of his fondest hopes as her would-be biographer. But he gains a more visceral understanding of both her legacy and the pull that India exerted on her in her last days.

I saw the 1999 American Conservatory Theater production of Indian Ink in the huge Geary Theater, and Lococo's intimate staging far surpasses it. ACT's proscenium stage offered plenty of opportunities for stunning tableaux, but the scenery swallowed up the quietly powerful scenes between Flora and Nirad. Lococo brings out their growing attraction and sympathy with subtle skill, aided by the immensely appealing chemistry of McMonagle and Anish Jethmalani. Peggy Roeder is wondrous as the brisk, brittle, keenly aware Eleanor, while Paul Slade Smith makes the somewhat laughable Pike sympathetic. And Parvesh Cheena is warm and witty in two roles, first as an ingratiating local dignitary who takes Flora under his wing, then as Pike's fellow academic, who tries to explain to him the rules of engagement with Jummapur's ever present beggars. Mark Nathan is a bit stiff and occasionally uncertain in his line readings as Anish, but his command of the role increases as the play progresses. (I also saw this production in a preview, which may account for some of his hesitancy.)

Tim Morrison's scenic design and Gina Patterson's evanescent lighting wonderfully evoke both the overwhelming heat and the dark mystery of Flora's "Wendy house," a small cottage with sliding doors and a bed draped in mosquito netting. Patti Roeder's clever costumes mix practical autumnal tones for the Brits with more vibrant shades for the Indian characters, and the shifts between time periods are seamless.

It's tempting to conclude that the play's emotional clarity stems from Stoppard's own years as a child in India. Tempting, but probably misguided given the playwright's well-known reluctance to draw connections between the facts of biography and acts of creation. But whatever is responsible for the script's rasa, Apple Tree deserves credit for bringing the play to our attention in a thoughtful, moving, smartly conceived production.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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