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"Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. " One might well imagine Tom Stoppard saying to his audience. Known for his densely layered, intellectually complex plays, his 1995 play Indian Ink rivals a Rushdie novel (Midnight's Children, perhaps?) for sheer complication.
Indian Ink is the story of Flora Crewe, a British poet visiting India in 1930. The action weaves between her budding romance with an Indian painter, Nirad Das, who is painting her portrait, and her elderly sister in 1980. Her sister, Eleanor, speaks with both Nirad's son, come looking for information about his father, and with a Texan professor, Eldon Pike, who is editing the Collected Letters of Flora Crewe. As we see Flora's story develop, we simultaneously see the lingering effects on her sister, her erstwhile biographer, and even on Nirad's son, half a century later. Though nothing ever happens between Flora and Nirad, the sexual tension crackles, and his unfinished portrait of her becomes the centerpiece of the play. As the action develops on both fronts, Pike chimes in periodically with his footnotes to her letters, and he goes to India to track down the missing portrait and to complete Flora's story.
Chronologically, thematically and linguistically intricate, and assuming a greater knowledge of Indian history and of pre-1947 Indian/British relations than perhaps audiences will readily have available, the play never quite goes over the audience's heads. It's challenging, but also intellectually stimulating. Stoppard's masterly interweaving of seemingly disparate subplots provides a thorough look at empire and imperialism — and an apt metaphor for our current efforts in Iraq. As Stoppard makes clear, colonization is never appreciated.
This is New York premiere of Indian Ink by Alter Ego, a young, primarily South Asian theatre group is large for an off-off-Broadway space as it must accommodate a 13-member cast and two different continents. Fortunately, director Ashok Sinha has an eye for spatial relationships, and the actors move fluidly without seeming cramped or confined. The set is very simple-a raised white platform on which most of the "Indian" action takes place, while "England" is out front. Props are kept to a minimum.
The first act gallops along without stopping for furniture rearrangement, but there are several overly long and involved scene changes in the second act. The lighting could have done more to delineate changes in location instead of set changes; it could also have been more vibrant, to highlight the warm and colorful costumes worn by the Indians (as opposed to the more bland apparel worn by the Brits). The original music was quite lovely, and deserved a more prominent role in the production.
The acting is lovely, almost as intense as the writing. Lethia Hall as Flora Crewe and Helen-Jean Arthur as Eleanor Swan (Flora's sister) are the standouts. Sendhil Ramamurthy as Nirad Das and Brian J. Coffey as Eldon Pike also gave strong performances. The chemistry between Hall and Ramamurthy was vividly apparent. Debargo Sanyal as Pike's Indian guide, Dilip, provided some much-needed comic relief. All the actors were energetic, and kept the pace moving throughout the long show. Both the acting and the directing show a thorough understanding of the text and the history behind it (kudos to dramaturg Anuvab Pal).
Alter Ego is a theatre company to watch. Not everyone can successfully pull off a Tom Stoppard premiere.
Editor's Note: This splendid New York premiere coincided with a splendid revival of Travesties at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. For a feature on Indian Ink when it played in DC, go here. You may also want to check our Tom Stoppard backgrounder.
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