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Review: 'Clay Cart' — rolling down the karma highway

Seeing "The Clay Cart" is like going to a feast in a strange land. It is vibrant and colorful and brimming with strange delights, but you're not sure what's what, and you're left with a nagging feeling you'd rather have had meat and potatoes.

"The Clay Cart" opened in the Saturday night slot of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's opening weekend of plays. It is the first-ever Bill Rauch-directed play of the Rauch era at OSF, and the first non-Western classic ever presented at the festival. It thus rises to the level of a Statement.

What it says is that Rauch is shaking things up at the venerable festival, and that we may see marvels not dreamt of in our philosophies. Christopher Acebo's bold indigo, purple and saffron set serves as an exclamation point.

"The Clay Cart" is a 2,000-year-old romantic comedy from north India attributed to Sudraka. The OSF is promoting it as "utterly Shakespearean," and it is that in the sense that we recognize a noble hero, a strong heroine, mistaken identities, a secondary love story, political intrigue, and the he getting the she in the end. The play has large doses of farce and melodrama and is alive with color and pageantry and music. But somehow, the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

In Ujjayini, the Brahmin Charudatta (Cristofer Jean) has nobly squandered his wealth on his friends. When the beautiful courtesan Vasantasena (Miriam A. Laube) comes to Charudatta's home fleeing the king's wicked brother-in-law, Samsthanaka (Brent Hinkley), she leaves her jangling jewels to escape quietly. A Brahmin named Sharvilaka (Richard Howard) steals the jewels to buy the freedom of his beloved, Madanika (Eileen DeSandre), who happens to be Vasantasena's servant.

Charudatta takes responsibility for the missing jewels and, through his friend Maitreya (Michael J. Hume), offers some pearls belonging to his wife in their place. That's two sets of jewels in places they're not supposed to be, some of which soon find their way into the cart of the play's title, which belongs to Charudatta's little son. Further mix-ups will ensue, with an escaped prisoner getting into Vasantasena's carriage, and Vasantasena getting into Samsthanaka's.

Bad mistake. Being a straight-up mustache-twirler, Samsthanaka does what villains, even multicultural ones, have always done: He kills the girl who rebuffs him, or so he thinks, and pins it on the hero.

Rauch stages all this on Acebo's gorgeous performance circle, a raised disk around which the actors, more than 30 in all, sit and react to the action. I don't know if actors in India did this, but it hints at Brecht.

It may in fact be as profitable to compare "The Clay Cart" to Brecht as Shakespeare. The play blends verse, satire, music, dance, exotic settings and direct rhetorical addresses that break the fourth wall. The play even has issues of social class at its heart.

"The Clay Cart" may remind some of a "Good Person of Szechuan" produced at the OSF a decade ago, another colorful world with good people and wicked ones leading us to ask what kind of world demands such choices. On the other hand, there is no attempt here, as in Brecht, to expose or undermine theatrical magic.

There is also a very non-Brechtian spirituality infusing the play. It is Hindu, and even Buddhist. One of the play's standing jokes is about a gambler (played with droll relish by Jeffrey King) who becomes a masseur who becomes a Buddhist monk.

There are notable performances from Laube, who dances, and Hinkley, who is outrageous as a comic heel.

Among the other riches are lots of music and movement, with Anjani Ambegaokar's intricate choreography, and composer Andre Pluess' original music performed by Tessa Brinckman, Ed Dunsavage and Terry Longshore. You may even detect a hint of flamenco, as if its roots were linked to India through the Gypsies.

Acebo's set is a sort of Rorschach blot inviting the audience to fill in imaginary details as needed. It is integral to Rauch's overall concept, a simple but powerful device that serves the story and the conventions of Indian theater. Actors leave the disk as, say, Charudatta's home, and return to it a moment later as a public square. Actors with invisible horses, a la Monty Python, circle the disk to take a journey.

In the end, the play says that good character is more important than riches and social standing. This had to be a subversive notion in Sudraka's day, running against the accepted notion of the karma of the untouchables. But in the Vedas, after all, right action leads to the reaping of goodness. Maybe Brahmins actually enjoyed having their noses tweaked. In any event, Sudraka cloaked his message in romance and comedy.

Few theaters today would (or could) even attempt a production as big and complex as this one. It will earn respect and fascination but is unlikely to move audiences. Its mix of lofty poetry and jocular melodrama is unbalancing, as if it can't find its voice. And at three hours it is overlong. It is well worth seeing but does not seem likely to fill the Bowmer during an eight-month run.

Sometimes theater blows away all our particularities of time and space and culture. Other times, the drama may remind us of our differences. For all its splendors, "The Clay Cart" will probably remain a spectacle wrapped in an enigma.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

Vasantasena (Miriam A. Laube) paints a portrait of her lover, Charudatta (Cristofer Jean) in “The Clay Cart.”