Out of India

Rogue's sinuous 'Nāga Mandala' falls a bit short of its high ambitions

I'll always favor an ambitious effort that falls short over a bland success. Therefore, I applaud the Rogue Theatre for its production of Nāga Mandala—but I found myself largely immune to the show's sinuous charms.

As is typical at the Rogue Theatre, there is plenty to enjoy in the way of fine acting, expert music, detailed costumes and simple yet intelligent stage design, but the individual pieces shine more brightly than the whole. Whether this is a flaw of the writing or the direction (by Cynthia Meier), I'm not sure. The result, though, is a work where the push for exoticism and the push for accessibility seem to cancel each other out.

Nāga is the Sanskrit word for the King Cobra, and a mandala is a form of sacred artwork found in Hinduism and Buddhism, an intricate layering of shapes and colors that is often used in meditation. The play Nāga Mandala is itself an intricate layering of two tales from India by playwright and filmmaker Girish Karnad.

In the outer layer of story, a playwright (Joseph McGrath) has been cursed by a wandering monk. He is told that he must remain awake for a full night, or he will die. Trying to carry out this penance in a secluded temple, he stumbles upon the secret place where lamp flames gather. Once they've been put out for the night, the flames (Avis Judd, Kristina Sloan, Brian Taraz and Jenny Wise) gossip about their households.

On this night, they are also joined by Story (Patty Gallagher), whose tale remained untold for so long that she has emerged from her keeper's head in the form of a beautiful woman. Finding the playwright to be a suitable audience, she relates her tale—about a young bride, a cruel husband and a shape-shifting cobra. Her story becomes the play's tale-within-a-tale.

Playwright Karnad is part of a movement known as the Theatre of Roots. Begun in India after independence from Britain in 1947, the movement's playwrights celebrate India's indigenous stories and theatrical forms—adapting rather than mimicking Western styles.

Nāga Mandala draws deeply from this cultural well, offering a theatrical experience unlike any I've seen on Tucson's stages. Masked characters interact with puppets. A love scene is enacted through music, song and dance, while the lovers barely touch. And characters bicker about loose ends and insist on changing the story.

Many aspects of the play are unfamiliar enough that they have a distancing effect, yet they aren't performed with enough authenticity or clarity to set the production apart as something truly exotic.

Take, for example, the closing bows. The cast spreads out on the round stage space, which has been beautifully designed by McGrath and painted with an intricate mandala by Amy Novelli. Unexpectedly, the actors begin to dance a Bollywood number—a brilliant idea.

The talented Matthew Finstrom plays his original music live throughout the performance, but his solo sitar does not provide enough oomph to power Bollywood choreography. The cast moves uncertainly, and their gestures lack the precision that makes such dancing exciting. (Gallagher doubles as choreographer.) On the night I attended, the audience was left confused: With no clear cue regarding how long the dancing would last, their initial applause died down, then returned, then faded again. Wishing to show their appreciation, they eventually began clapping together to a beat independent of the music.

This not-quite-coming-together of East and West can also be seen in some of the performers' masks, created by Aaron Cromie. Masks figure prominently in traditional Indian performance, but they are typically brightly colored and highly stylized.

Cromie's masks for the two main characters, the bride, Rani (Gallagher), and her husband, Appanna (McGrath), more closely resemble the half-masks of traditional Italian comedy. Their dark coloring obscures the characters' faces, and the curvature above the mouth demands too much attention—appearing to be a sneer, an overbite or a moustache. It's a design that's perfect for the bright slapstick of commedia dell'arte, but too distracting for the more nuanced story of this play.

Gallagher and McGrath also seem to be borrowing from commedia in their performance styles. Both are talented actors, and their broad gestures and stylized speaking are perfectly suited to their masks, but they both are surprisingly wooden when performing without them.

Fortunately, the production has an exceptional supporting cast.

Jill Baker and Taraz steal the show as an elderly busybody and her put-upon son. Baker captures her character's personality in her every movement. Full of bird-like twitchiness and bursts of energy, she appears both strong and fragile. Taraz, who must carry Baker around on his back, imbues his performance with the endearing, clueless earnestness of a South Asian Napoleon Dynamite.

Judd, Sloan and Wise make a perfect trio of village elders, decked out in Cromie's wizened masks and turbans. They chatter and mumble and complain, winning the most laughs of the evening. And puppeteer Matt Cotton's cobra puppet—12 feet long and beautifully rendered—earns gasps when it makes its spectacular entrance.

In fact, the consistent level of quality in every detail, from the costumes to the ensemble players, is part of what makes productions at the Rogue so compelling. For instance, at one point, Judd was operating a bulldog puppet; the dog wasn't supposed to be doing anything but sitting. There was no reason for anyone to be looking at Judd, but that didn't keep her from continuing to perform her role. The expressions on her face silently conveyed the dog's confusion: Why has my master left? What do I do now?

Discoveries like that let you know you're seeing something special, and Rogue productions are full of such discoveries. Is this the company's finest production? No. But the Rogue also sets its vision high enough that, even falling short, it offers plenty to reward the adventurous theater-goer.

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