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

Mahabharata: Part One (Kharma) and Part Two (Dharma) 

Written and adapted by Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes using poetry from Carole Satyamurti

Directed by Ravi Jain with associate director Miriam Fernandes

Set designed by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes designed by Gillian Gallow

Lighting designed by Kevin Lamotte

Projections designed by Hana S. Kim with associate projections designer Ann Slote

Original music and sound designed by John Gzowski and Suba Sankaran

Traditional Music Consultant Hasheel Lodhia

Choreographed by Brandy Leary

Khana storyteller and artistic associate Sharada K Eswar

Mahabharata Production manager Crystal Lee

Mahabharata Lead Producer Kevin Matthew Wong

Featuring: 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 and Sukania Venugopal

Musical accompaniment by John Gzowski, Suba Sankaran, Dylan Bell, Gure Singh Hunjan, Hasheel Lodhia, and Zaheer-Abbas Janmohamed

Shaw Festival Theatre in a limited run through March 26th

In pre-curtain opening night remarks at the world premiere performance of Mahabharata, the epic, five hour modern retelling of the ancient Sanskrit poem now playing at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake through March 26th, Why Not Theatre’s founding artistic director, Ravi Jain, made note of the fact that the production had been almost eight years in the making in order to bring it to this moment. 

This seemed like a relatively short period of time, given the fact that the project was set to go into rehearsal in 2020 but had to be postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So it was really about 5-6 years in the making. Given today’s production standards, the average gestation period for a musical can be easily up to a decade before it reaches the stage.

All of this is to point out the huge boost given to Jain and his associate director and collaborator, Miriam Fernandes, by way of a commission received from the Shaw Festival with a commitment to present the show on one of the Festival’s stages. At this point, Shaw Festival’s artistic director, Tim Carroll, could easily have chosen to place the show in the Studio Theatre but instead courageously upped the ante and presented Mahabharata on the main stage where it rightfully belongs. Add to this the fact that, when the production concludes its limited run at the Shaw Festival, it heads to the Barbican in London followed by a world tour, and you have quite a story behind the epic story portrayed on stage.

Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata is not to be missed. It is a superb production that ranks with the finest ever presented on the Shaw Festival stage.

The creation tale of this Mahabharata is one that cannot be separated from its originators, Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes. Although I have not seen all of their work over the years, there are a few productions that caught my eye early on, especially during their time with Soulpepper in Toronto. 

Dario Fo’s play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist (considered a classic of 20th-century theatre), was transposed by Jain geographically and politically to a Toronto setting. What could easily have been a so-so urban-political romp was turned into a fast paced satirical comedy about racism and policing in Toronto with dialog that read like the morning newspaper and physical comedy that reminded you Jain had once studied at the Lecoq School in Paris.

He did the same with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, another modern classic (here adapted by Anthony MacMahon). Jain directed the Soulpepper company, which included Miriam Fernandes in the role of Squealer, with a “crisp” (the word I used in my review) efficiency that wryly inserted portions of Orwell’s 1984 into the second act of the show while sticking with the Animal Farm mise-en-scène.

That was in 2016. 

Jain had just been appointed associate director at Soulpepper in an effort to bring about diversity and change within the culture of the organization. Seven months later, frustrated with the then artistic director, Albert Schultz who Jain said “was resistant to change,” he left the organization. A year after that, “the troubles” at Soulpepper came into public light.

Although disquieted and disheartened, Jain didn’t let this professional setback deter the creative energies that had driven his career. Returning to their base at Why Not Theatre, a company that he and Fernandes and others founded in 2007, they expanded their vision and began to build a new project. This new incarnation of Mahabharata, written and adapted by Jain and Fernandes, became central to that vision.

I doubt very much whether many people in the audience had actually ever read the 200,000 verse lines that make up the 1.8 million words of the Mahabharata. No worries, there are ample numbers of distillations including films, television series, graphic comic books and novels available. Variations of form, content and performance styles abound when it comes to Mahabharata.

In a zoom panel discussion leading up to the show’s opening, Karen Fricker, theatre critic for the Toronto Star (as well as professor at Brock University) along with Larry Switzky, a professor in the University of Toronto Mississauga’s theatre and drama studies program, interviewed Sharada Eswar and Dr. Chindu Sreedharan. Eswar provided the translation and text adaptation for the opera sequence that features within Mahabharata while Sreedharan (who is a professor of journalism at Bournemouth University) recently mounted his own original adaptation of the poem as an extended Twitter exchange.

When adapting an epic work of this magnitude for the stage, there is one indispensable role that is of primary importance – the narrator or Storyteller as it is called in this production. It is the Storyteller that introduces the characters – and there are many – all of whom have a backstory. The Storyteller sorts things out for us when we fear that we might lose our way when the plots and subplots of avenge and revenge become complicated as we try to find the right path through this ancient and sometimes bewildering forest of dense mythology. The Mahabharata Family Tree, handily slipped into the program, is also a helpful guide through the forest.

With Miriam Fernandes in the primary role of Storyteller, we are in good stead. At the beginning of the performance in Karma (Part 1), she makes her entrance walking calmly out to centre stage into the middle of what seems to be a circle of red sand. There is nothing but an almost bare stage with some stools and six musicians backgrounded upstage who provide an almost constant soundscape of period Indian classical raga consistent with the Hindu tradition. With a welcoming smile from the Storyteller, the play begins.

Fernandes’ affable mien offers us the gentle and knowing hand of a knowledgeable tour guide while her lithe physicality can also flip to produce a stern warning and cautionary rebuke when necessary. It is a performance of incredible virtuosity.

It is also the duty of the Storyteller to introduce us to the myriad characters, here played gender neutral in some cases. However, when a woman plays a man, the actor retains the male he/him pronouns which eases up on the confusion considerably and allows the action to flow freely. 

In this regard, there are some unexpected but welcome moments such as when the Storyteller first introduces Krishna (played by Neil D’Souza), one of the Hindu religion’s most celebrated gods, who turns out to be a bit of a wisecracker. The audience enjoyed this short banter between the two of them with Krishna portrayed as having a flippant sense of humor while throwing out a couple of zinger one-liners. Who knew?

In a gesture toward modernity in Dharma (Part 2), we see the stage now includes the apparatus of IT technology. A person with their back to us hovers over a laptop at a table. Doing what, I conjectured? Getting ready to take minutes of the meeting that is being assembled around a table on the other side of the stage? Or tracking a drone as it conducts military surveillance on a target half way around the world?

A wide projection at the back of the stage shows an overhead static screen until it is called into use to enlarge the faces of King Dhritarashtra (Harmage Singh Kalirai) and his family of beset advisors who are seated at a long table upstage. Their faces (perfectly framed by Hana S. Kim’s digital design) are now enlarged so we can see every reaction (agreement, disagreement, indecision), as the family plots options and strategies in their war room or “situation room,” which is the modern euphemism that so characteristically describes the room in the White House where state power gathers to deal with an international crisis when it needs fast and speedy military intervention. Decisions made there will change the lives of millions. And so it is with the Kauravas household as they move relentlessly to war against the Pandavas family because of an ancient grudge that begets only bloody destruction and misery on them and the world around them.

It was not for nothing that Robert Oppenheimer, known as the “father of the atomic bomb,” quoted the Bhagavad Gita as he witnessed the first test explosion of the bomb in a laboratory in the Nevada desert during the Second World War: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Samuel Morse’s first electronically transmitted, coded message (sent in 1844), also springs to mind: “What hath God wrought?”

The performative style in Dharma elevates with two featured sequences of opera and dance. Sharada Eswar’s translation and text adaptation of the Bhagavad Gita with original music by John Gzowski and Suba Sankaran is sung with exquisite grandeur by Meher Pavri. Beautifully costumed by Gillian Gallow, Pavri moves slowly across the stage as if trying to push back, with the power of an aria, against the foreboding despair of the coming war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas who are all now assembled on the stage facing off against one another.

Enter now the god, Shiva, played by Jay Emmanuel, who performs a whirling, hypnotic Kathakali dance sequence that represents the chaos and unrelenting destruction of war. The classical training and propaedeutics of Kathakali actors and dancers is of a far more intricate and disciplined approach to performance art than the training of their Western world counterparts. To have a small taste of it here, seeing the dance in performance not as an extrapolated demonstration piece but as part of an integrated choreographic whole (kudos to Brandy Leary here) within a great work of art, is a very rare treat.

On the day of Mahabharata’s opening, the morning drive down the QEW to Niagara-on-the-Lake was bright and sunshiny with temperatures hovering several degrees above zero. The weather had been so warm recently that my partner and I remarked upon the grapevines in the Niagara region as we were driving into town. Many had a reddish- purple color that looked like they were close to blooming. 

But the grapevines on the way home were something else again. Niagara-on-the-Lake had been hit by one of those late winter snowstorms that had altered the landscape considerably. Will the storm do damage to the vines now bent over by the snow? I’m not an agronomist so I can’t answer that but it all did seem to fit into some kind of overarching karma. Was it a visual metaphor set in play by Mahabharata? Could it be that we were watching the natural and sometimes chaotic social order of the universe being played out geographically? Is this all a result of the antagonistic intrigues of humankind untempered by the wisdom accumulated over the ages or is it the tension between the flesh and the profoundly spiritual that only the elements over time and space will finally resolve?

Or was it just a late winter snowstorm that might have an affect on the grapes this year?  I’ll leave it to Krishna for an answer.

Photo by Robin Breon

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