Stage Door Review

Chitra

Sunday, August 21, 2022

✭✭✭✭✩

by Rabindranath Tagore, directed by Kimberly Rampersad

Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

June 19-October 8, 2022

Chitra: “It is the labour of a life time to make one’s true self known and honoured”

The Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) – a writer, composer, philosopher and painter – was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. It is fitting, and about time, that the Shaw Festival, named for another Nobel laureate, should choose a play by Tagore as its first-ever play originally written in an Asian language. (The Shaw presents Tagore’s own 1913 English translation of his 1892 Bengali original.)

Of Tagore’s approximately 57 plays, musical dramas and dance dramas, two are the best known. One is The Post Office (1912), which some Torontonians may have been lucky enough to see in a production by Pleiades Theatre in 2011. The other is Chitra which the Shaw Festival has chosen. It is a delightful 45-minute-long play focussed on the roles of men and women and it is given a wonderfully imaginative production by Kimberly Rampersad where dance and music immensely enhance the storytelling.

The story of Chitra (short for Chitrāngadā) is found in the the great Sanskrit epic poem the Mahābhārata (c.300BC-300AD), the longest epic ever written. Tagore’s play introduces us to Chitra (Gabriella Sundar Singh), the daughter of the King of Manipur, who, lacking a son, has raised Chitra as a boy and taught her all the arts of a warrior. This has served Chitra well and she has become a hero to her people.

Unfortunately, Chitra has seen a man and for the first time in her life has fallen in love. But this is not any man she has seen but Arjuna (Andrew Lawrie), one of the world’s most famous warriors and a hero of the Mahābhārata, who, to Chitra’s great dismay has taken a twelve-year vow of celibacy. If the name Arjuna is familiar it is because the dialogue between Arjuna and the god Krishna makes up the text of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the holy texts of Hinduism, that forms chapters 23-40 of Book 6 of the Mahābhārata.

At the start of Tagore’s play Chitra seeks the help of Madana (Sanjay Talwa), the god of love, and Vasanta (Taurian Teelucksingh), the god of spring (though the text also calls him the god of the seasons). Chitra knows that many men who have taken a vow of chastity have given it up for a voluptuous woman. Therefore, she asks that Madana and Vasanta make her irresistibly beautiful for just one day so that she can seduce Arjuna. Chastity is, of course, something neither of the two gods favour, so they grant Chitra not just one day but an entire year of invincible beauty.

Chitra’s plan succeeds. Arjuna does fall in love with her, but the question arises, as happens when anyone in literature uses a disguise to win a lover – “Is he in love with me or only with what I appear to be?”

This question is familiar from Shakespeare with his many young women who disguise themselves as men. In Twelfth Night Olivia falls in love with the messenger Cesario, not realizing that Cesario is really the woman, Viola, in disguise. In Chitra the situation is reversed. The way Chitra has been raised, how she acts and how she dresses makes her look so much like a young man that people treat her as such. Therefore, to win Arjuna she desires to look like and be as alluring as a beautiful woman.

It may seem old-fashioned that Chitra and the gods take such a binary view of men and women as looking and acting in completely different ways. But Tagore uses the story of Chitra to confound the notion that Chitra and the gods hold of such a strict differentiation. The point of the play is that who Chitra really is, not her false exterior, is what attracts Arjuna and makes him want to keep her by his side as an equal in all endeavours. The play thus makes not only a feminist argument but a humanist one. No true relationship can be based on deception. As Chitra tells Arjuna, “Woo not falsehood, offer not your great heart to an illusion”.

Tagore’s mode of presentation where characters narrate their actions and slip into and out of dialogue to comment on them would have seemed modern in 1913. Now, after a period of invisible fourth-wall realism, the style Tagore uses is modern again and found in such innovators as Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon (2009) or Winter Solstice (2015). Tagore is not interested in conventional realism. He states that he sought to articulate “the play of feeling and not of action”.

In imagining a place where the earth meets heaven set designer Anahita Dehbonehie has arrived at the archetypal structure for such a purpose, a step pyramid, examples of which where built by peoples as different as ancient Egyptians, Mayans and the ancient Khmer. Gods were thought to live at the top of Mesopotamian ziggurats and so it is here where Madana and Vasanta are found. Lighting designer Chris Malkowski has fitted the steps with strips of light that glow in varied colours to suit the mood of the scene.

Director Kimberly Rampersad has assembled a fine cast for Chitra. Gabriella Sundar Singh lends Chitra the warrior maiden lively enthusiasm and youthful vigour. Singh makes it quite understandable that a woman used to conquering others in battle would use whatever means necessary to conquer a man she loves. The difficulty with Singh’s performance is that she speaks so rapidly the poetry of Tagore’s text is sometimes lost. Also, Singh does not sufficiently differentiate between Chitra’s manner of speech and behaviour when she is a warrior and when she is disguised as an alluring woman.

In contrast Andrew Lawrie clearly depicts Arjuna’s growing fascination with the disguised Chitra to the point where Arjuna is pained that Chitra’s inner nature does not seem to conform to her outer appearance. Arjuna tells Chitra, “Sometimes in the enigmatic depth of your sad look ... I gain glimpses of a being trying to rend asunder the languorous grace of her body”. It is difficult to make an ideal hero interesting, but Lawrie with a glowing voice and shifts in tone from initial excitement to contentment to discontent, brings out the human qualities in Arjuna with which we can identify.

Sanjay Talwar and Taurian Teelucksingh give the gods Madana and Vasanta the grandeur and nobility of deities, but they both betray a mischievous side showing that even gods secretly enjoy Chitra’s plan to help break a human’s vow of celibacy.

Because Tagore’s plays focus on feeling over action, they have sometimes been called static by European commentators. That could hardly be said of Rampersad’s production which weaves music and movement into the spoken text. Ryan deSouza and Darryn deSouza have composed Indian-infused music that underscores the entire play. Rampersad uses a finely disciplined corps of actor/dancers – Caitlyn MacInnis, David Andrew Reid, Jade Repeta and Adam Sergison – who often appear as the deities’ subalterns whose movements amplify everything the deities say. At other times they transform themselves into obstacles in Chitra’s path, like a forest, or wilt in response her sadness or dance in celebration of her happiness. Another time they speak as villagers in Manipur seeking Chitra’s protection. In adding music and dance to the play Rampersad is only following Tagore’s own example since in 1914 he turned Chitra into a dance-drama himself.

All in all the Shaw production of Chitra is a fine first step in opening Festival-goers eyes to the work of a master like Tagore and to the realm of pan-global drama in general. The world of the Shaw Festival’s original mandate, works written by Shaw’s contemporaries, is very wide and extends beyond the British Isles, America and Canada. I, for one, would like to see as much from that wider world as possible.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: David Andrew Reid, Jade Repeta, Gabriella Sundar Singh in white as Chitra, Caitlyn MacInnis and Adam Sergison; Andrew Laurie as Arjuna and Gabriella Sundar Singh as Chitra; Gabriella Sundar Singh as Chitra and Andrew Lawrie as Arjuna (in foreground) Taurian Teelucksingh as Vasanta, Sanjay Talwar as Madana and in blue David Andrew Reid, Caitlyn MacInnis, Adam Sergison and Jade Repeta. © 2022 David Cooper.

For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.