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Sanskrit Comes to Ashland 

'The Clay Cart' shines

With clouds of incense rising above them, the large cast in colorful costumes is arrayed in a circle. They sit on cushions and stand under lanterns, chanting and singing in a golden light. The opening of The Clay Cart, now in repertory at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, promises an exotic experience from ancient India.

But once the play begins, and those long difficult character names in the program are transformed into recognizable musical sound, audiences are quickly caught up in a story filled with elements familiar from western drama, particularly Shakespeare: star-crossed lovers, a hero down on his luck, political intrigue and revolution, a sardonic fool, a dangerous villain, high-born hypocrites and noble-spirited scamps, an articulate criminal with professional pride. There are mistaken identities, sudden transformations, reversals of fortune, coincidence, violence, melodrama and farce. The plot involves stolen jewels, a pearl necklace, gamblers, a murder trial and, incidentally, a little clay cart.

There's wit that contemporary audiences can appreciate in this 1960s translation and abridgement of a play that's something like 2,000 years old. The audience I saw it with particularly liked this one: "Wisdom comes naturally to women, but men have to be taught with books."

The OSF production emphasizes these shared elements. Though Miriam Laube in the major role of the courtesan Vastantasena incorporates some ritual movements from Sanskrit theatre, the acting styles are largely familiar, and delightfully accomplished. Fluid staging, a simple but impressive set (built around and within that circle), gorgeous lighting — from that symbolic golden glow to the pale dawn and the turquoise sky before a storm — all have the signature OSF quality. If the show errs, it's towards a little too much Broadway gloss. Still, this play comes from a theatrical tradition that is largely unknown today, even in India.

On April 5, 1965, the Beatles were filming an Indian restaurant scene for their second feature film,Help! Between takes, George Harrison picked up a strange stringed instrument used by one of the musicians supposedly playing for customers. It was a sitar. Within a few years, Harrison's relationship with Ravi Shankar, and the Beatles' trip to learn meditation in India brought traditional Indian music and ideas into western popular culture in a very big way. After many more inroads since, American audiences can more comfortably explore the cultural differences and similarities.

Of course there had been forays before. Writers like Somerset Maugham described Hindu ideas, and Sanskrit drama influenced western playwrights like Brecht and Thorton Wilder. Probably the first U.S. production of The Little Clay Cart (as this play is usually called) was the 1924 season-opener at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. That production, and most of the few since, tried to honor the strictures of Sanskrit drama, including the 1994 staging at Pomona College in southern California. Around that time, Bill Rauch created a looser adaptation with his Cornerstone Theatre Company in Los Angeles (called The Toy Truck). Now OSF's new artistic director, Rauch has directed a production that's somewhere in between: pretty faithful to the text, and arguably to the spirit of Sanskrit drama, as well as to at least some of the style.

That style is codified in one of the holy books of the Hindu religion and philosophy: the fifth Veda, devoted entirely to all aspects of drama. That's how important drama was, to all segments of society. Vocabularies of movement and expression, types of dramas and how plays were to unfold, etc., were all proscribed, though as a living art, Sanskrit theatre continued to invent and change. Remnants in Bollywood films are mostly what remains in Indian popular culture.

The OSF production uses music, dance, masks and movement, and the staging suggests the settings rather than depicting them — all consistent with Sanskrit styles. The story reveals some social structures ostensibly different from ours, notably concerning marriage (but that's also true of Shakespeare to some extent). Still, audiences will find relevance to our current class divides, political struggles and even relationship complications.

The Clay Cart is not a religious play; the OSF program describes it as a social comedy. But comparing this play to western dramas and comedies, the most revealing and ultimately inspiring difference to me was the kind of conflict that creates the dramatic action. Yes, there is a villain (though he's played as a ridiculous figure from the start) and human foibles that lead to complications, but the overall motives are most often generosity, loyalty, empathy and love. As one character proclaims: "If a man sets his mind on virtue, there is nothing he may not dare."

It was an inspired idea to bring The Clay Cart to OSF, and this funny, moving, vibrant production has to be the highlight of the season.

On the other hand, OSF's current A Midsummer Night's Dream is dreadfully old-fashioned. You've seen it before a hundred times, with other plays that used to be by Shakespeare. The Duke of Athens is a New Jersey mobster of the only ethnic group it's still permissible to mock: Italians. (We're all in the Mafia, as you know.) The enchanted forest is also somehow a disco, the fairies are really ... well, you get the idea.

I suppose I'm jaded — the hundreds of junior high school students in the audience were screaming from the moment the lights came up — or maybe something else accounts for my negative reaction. In future, however, I would appreciate a better indication in the program notes of what I am about to see. Or in cases like this, what I will avoid.

Coming upon the North Coast this weekend: An encore performance of the Dell'Arte MFA Ensemble's Between Two Winters at the Carlo Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., before its run the following weekend at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. The puppets of the Shoe Box Variety Show perform at the Arcata Playhouse Friday at 7 p.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m. And 7 p.m. Ferndale Rep performs a staged reading of Shaw's Don Juan in Hell on Sunday afternoon only, at 2 p.m.

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