by Lynn on March 13, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. A Why Not Theatre Production in association with the Barbican, London, commissioned and presented by the Shaw Festival. Playing until March 26, 2023.

Written and adapted by Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes

(using poetry from Carole Satyamaurti’s Mahabharata: A Modern Retelling. Original concept developed with Jenn Koons).

Directed by Ravi Jain

Set by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Gillian Gallow

Lighting by Kevin Lamotte

Projections by Hana S. Kim

Original music and sound design by John Gzowski and Suba Sankaran

Choreography by Brandy Leary

Musicians: John Gzowski

Suba Sankaran

Dylan Bell

Gurtej Singh Hunjan

Hasheel Lodhia

Zaheer-Abbas Janmohamed

Cast: Shawn Ahmed

Neil D’Souza

Jay Emmanuel

Miriam Fernandes

Varun Guru

Karthik Kadam

Harmage Singh Kalirai

Darren Kuppan

Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu

Goldy Notay

Ellora Patnaik

Meher Pavri

Anand Rajaram

Sakuntala Ramanee

Ronica Sajnani

Ishan Sandhu

Navtej Sandhu

Munish Sharma

Sukania Venugopal

A herculean endeavor to bring the Mahabharata to the stage to show both the powerful cultural epic and also realize the intense story of two warring families. Kudos to Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes for their incredible efforts lasting eight years until fruition.

Background. The Mahābhārata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India in Hinduism, the other being the Rāmāyaṇa. It narrates the struggle between two groups of cousins in the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kaurava and the Pāṇḍava princes and their successors.

The original author is Vyasa who wrote this epic poem in Sanskrit. It was written between c. 400 BCE-c. 400 CE. There are 200,000 lines.  Among the principal works and stories in the Mahābhārata are: the Bhagavad Gita, Damayanti, Shakuntala, Pururava and Urvashi, Savitri and Satyavan, Kacha and Devayani, Rishyasringa and an abbreviated version of the Rāmāyaṇa, often considered as works in their own right.

The Story. To say The Mahabharata is dense with characters, philosophies and ethics is an understatement. Co-writers Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes have focused their version of the epic on the ongoing animosity between the 100 strong Kaurava family and the five brothers who made up the Pandava family. Each vied for power, property, position and to rule the kingdom. Each promised to follow the strict dictates of war but each resorted to trickery, duplicity and cheating to gain position. Rage, anger and hatred ruled decisions (echoes of war through the ages). Neither side would yield. For a four-thousand-year-old epic, it certainly is prescient about the brutality, blind-determination and animosity that has driven warring sides through the ages.

The Production. The Mahabharata is presented in two parts. “Mahabharata: KARMA (Part 1) The Life We Inherit” and “Mahabharata: Dharma (Part 2) The Life We Choose” which includes the Bhagavad Gita opera.  There are some days when both parts are performed with a dinner break of one hour and 10 minutes, called KHANA Community Meal. While having a community meal is a wonderful idea to get into the spirit of the event, I cannot recommend the meal: too expensive at $45 for what you get: a lukewarm vegetarian meal of beans, potatoes, peas, lentils, naan, a yogurt drink (all should have been individually labeled to inform folks what it was—not just a sign to the side listing the menu) and on a separate table, again, an unmarked bowl of sliced carrots that was so hot/spicy my uvula nearly melted. Nothing indicated how hot that was. Not helpful.

Lorenzo Savoini’s set is exquisite in evoking the mysticism of India 4000 years ago. A circle of red sand dominates the stage floor. Is it really red sand or is it Kevin Lamotte’s evocative lighting that suggests red sand? Not sure. In any case it’s an arresting image. A stool is in the middle of the circle. A bank of lights stretches across the back of the stage. At points in the storytelling the lights will rise or lower slowly and illuminate the stage. The musicians are situated on the stage, in full view, along the back wall. The beautiful score by John Gzowski and Suba Sankaran underscores the telling of the story without ever distracting from it. It always enhances the story and accentuates the power of war.

The Storyteller, the wonderful Miriam Fernandes, enters the stage and sits on the stool in the circle. She begins the story of Part 1 by introducing the various gods, participants and where they came from. It’s information overload trying to keep track of who is related to whom and who belongs to what family, the Kauravas or the Pandavas. This part is particularly challenging with many characters being introduced to give background. One must quote the Storyteller from the play to keep things in perspective: “Don’t be confused by plots. Within the river of stories flows infinite wisdom. This is your true inheritance.” To carry on the river metaphor, float in the information and don’t drown in it; the information will buoy you up. Miriam Fernandes is charming, buoyant, clear, precise and measured in her pacing. And she is so invested in telling the story clearly that we hang in there.

The images of men at war or illuminating why one is a champion archer are many and vivid. I’m surprised that director Ravi Jain does not show or realize many of these images in physical theatricality rather than just telling us about them.

But I sense that he uses dance in its many forms to tell many of the stories. Dance is a particular vocabulary that I don’t know in order to interpret what is being said. I do know that various Indian dances and its forms are precise, intricate and particular. Each hand gesture, each turn of the head, each position of the foot, means something, so on that level, I’m impressed with this way of telling the story.

What is not in question is Ravi Jain’s ability to realize the huge theatrical sweep of the story. At times a large sphere slowly lowers at the back symbolic of a change in the story. The curtain to end the act lowers slowly, again for a theatrical effect.

The second half of Part 1 moves quicker because the story has been established. “Mahabharata: Dharma (Part 2) The Life We Choose, goes like the wind. The sides between the two families are set. War is inevitable. Dance is used to recreate the energy and fierceness of battle. Kudos to Jay Emmanuel as Shiva and Amba and Ellora Patnaik as Kinti/Drona particularly for the electrifying dance.

Part 2 contains the Bhagavad Gita opera sung in exquisite stillness by Meher Pavri. She is dressed in a gold gown (kudos to Gillian Gallow for the beautiful costumes) and sunburst head covering. She slowly moves cross the stage singing the opera, her hands are by her sides. There are no gestures for emotion. It’s all in the singing. Stunning.

The cast to a person is excellent. Every pose, gesture, hand-movement, kneel on the stage, evokes a classical pose in Indian paintings or sculpture. It all works to bring the culture alive in the story. A triumph.    

Comment. This production is a truly international endeavor. The cast are all of South Asian decent coming from Canada, England, India and Australia for example. The creatives are a truly international cross-section of artists bringing their expertise to produce a work that is seamless in conjuring the rich world of The Mahabharata.

Ravi Jain and his co-writer Miriam Fernandes worked on this project for eight years. It was commissioned by the Shaw Festival and was supposed to play at the Shaw Festival for the summer a few years ago but COVID interfered. Now it’s relegated to play a short run in March. One must be thankful for small mercies with something this huge. Still, March? (sigh) Never Mind.

After this The Mahabharata will go on a world tour (I sense the determined hand of Ravi Jain and his international reach to accomplish this too), and that seems fitting. This is a stunning production in every single way.

A Why Not Theatre Production in association with the Barbican, London, commissioned and presented by the Shaw Festival.

Opened: March 9, 2023.

Closes: March 26, 2023.

Running Time: Part 1- 2 hours and 30 minutes (one intermission)

                           Part 2- 2 hours 20 minutes (one intermission)

Leave a Comment