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Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2003

A mini 'Mahabharata' of epic proportions


Special to The Japan Times

How is your "geijitsu no aki" going? If you haven't got out to enjoy the splendors of "artistic autumn" yet, the Ku Na'uka Theatre Company's new play, "Mahabharata-Nalacaritam (Prince Nala's Adventure)" is as romantic and colorful a spectacle as any laid on by nature.

News photo
Actress Mikari is simply divine as goddess-princess Damayanty in "Mahabharata -- Nalacaritam."

Mention of a staged "Mahabharata" at once brings to mind Sir Peter Brook's 10-hour version of the Hindu epic poem, which debuted at the Avignon International Drama Festival in 1985. The inspired version now playing in Tokyo, however -- commissioned by director Satoshi Miyagi, Ku Na'uka's founder, from the pen of Azumi Kubota -- lasts just two hours.

That's no mean feat. The original "Mahabharata," written in Sanskrit, comprises 100,000 stanzas, making it probably the world's longest poem. This 18-volume work, which arrived at its present form around the fifth century, is filled with so much legend, philosophy and spirituality that it must have kept its translators through the ages busy for their whole lifetimes.

The poem's core narrative describes a civil war in the Bharata kingdom, near present-day Delhi, between the five sons of the deceased King Pandu and their 100 stepbrothers. Here, Miyagi has selected one episode, known as the "Nalacaritam," from the third volume. But more than merely a slice of Indian history, Miyagi's "Mahabharata" is a pan-Asian drama set in Japan's mythical past.

The play tells the story of a gorgeous goddess-princess named Damayanty (Mikari) who, despite receiving propsals from many divine suitors, chooses to marry the human Nala (Koichi Otaka), a prince of Bharata. After a few years of peaceful married life, Nala is seduced by the devil Kali (Hotaka Hagiwara). Having lost his self-respect, Nala hits a downward spiral, gambling away his money and property and forfeiting his succession to his younger brother. After husband and wife are exiled, the despairing prince is possessed by a devil and abandons Damayanty.

Things can hardly get worse -- and in this captivatingly humane tale, they don't. Nala struggles to overcome his weak, wicked heart, while his beautiful wife is steadfast in her love for him. The two are finally reunited and wisely rule the troubled kingdom. This is nothing if not a happy ending.

Though the play is, at heart, a love story, emphasizing the power of faith and loyalty, its great strength is the way it lays bare human weakness in the face of temptation -- and offers, too, the abiding possibility that we can learn from our mistakes.

For his last production, a version of Oscar Wilde's "Salome," Miyagi chose as his stage the trees and open spaces of Hibiya Park. This time, he has selected another wonderfully apposite venue -- the basement of the Oriental Pavilion at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. Making this a total experience, the museum is opening the first-floor galleries of its "Gandharan and Indian Sculpture in the Second and Third Centuries" exhibition to audience members before the show, so they can slip into the play's world all the better.

In the cozy auditorium most of the seats are no more than a few meters from the stage -- which is less of a stage and more like two fashion-show runways intersecting in the center. The set design is equally imaginative: Positioned behind and alongside the acting area are four large screens, each bearing the image of a mythical beast (tiger, turtle, dragon and hoo bird) and each moving to center-stage for a portion of the drama. Most striking, though, is Miyagi's decision to clothe his actors in origami-style costumes made from washi (Japanese paper), while most of the props and the powerful masks are made from traditional bark-paper.

However, though set in Japan, Miyagi is aiming for a truly Asian production. To this end, he incorporates various elements from southeast Asian culture: live Indonesian gamelan music played on a range of percussion instruments; wayang kulit (Indonesian shadow play); and the use of a masked, white-robed "chorus" intoning and clapping to heighten the drama.

But this wouldn't be a Ku Na'uka production without the director's trademark "Logos and Pathos" technique which uses two actors for each role, one (the Logos) speaking; the other (the Pathos) acting. The technique isn't uniformly applied here, however. Instead, a principal Logos (Kazunori Abe) narrates all the roles, though the Pathos actors sometimes speak and sing. A press release explained that Miyagi had divided the roles in this way to express the "special tension created by the sudden changes in this play."

It's an exotic and heady brew, to which the fine performances of the young supporting cast add spice and excitement. If top-class theater is to your taste -- whatever the season -- just be glad you're in Tokyo now, with people like Miyagi working their magic on the "Mahabharata."

"Mahabharata -- Nalacaritam" runs till Nov. 16 at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park, a 10-min. walk from JR Ueno Station. Tickets 2,500 yen (with student discount) to 4,500 yen. For more details, call Ku Na'uka at (03) 3779-7653 or visit www.kunauka.or.jp Nobuko Tanaka welcomes readers' comments at nobukoipj@hotmail.com


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