home | art & architecture | books & cds | dance | destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
.. .San Francisco:
Ink (1995), Tom Stoppard
CV has been a Tom
Stoppard fan since way back in 1968 when we saw his brilliant play Rosencrantz &
Guildenstern Are Dead, a play that won him New York's Tony Award for best play of the
season. Ever since, Stoppard has been a fecund source of witty, intelligent, literary
scripts for the stage and screen, never more widely acclaimed than with his current
screenplay for Shakespeare in Love.
So, then, it is a bit of a coup for American Conservatory Theater's artistic director, Carey Perloff, to have secured the rights for the American premiere of Stoppard's 1995 play Indian Ink. It is a lovely play with some structural and thematic parallels to Stoppard's 1993 Arcadia, but lighter, less dense, and more accessible.
Our heroine is a poet, Flora Crewe, a liberated and independent woman who, in 1930, travels to India for her health. That premise seems just a tad strange - India, a healthy place for consumptives? - and Stoppard throws in a very funny bit of dialogue to cover himself on this conceit. As Arcadia crisscrossed time periods from the early nineteenth century to the present, Indian Ink takes us back and forth between Flora's adventures in 1930 India and the 1980's, when a biographer is researching her life with a good deal of assistance from Flora's surviving older sister. The structure provides the framework for a multiplicity of themes that Stoppard explores: cross-cultural contrast and conflict, caste systems in India and amongst the British, colonialism, comparative religion, art, the perception of women, the work of historians and the elusiveness of history itself. Academics take their share of gentle mockery, but no one is immune. (Asked about his religion on his deathbed, an interior decorator is reported to have confessed, "I'm afraid I worship mauve!")
Stoppard's seemingly encyclopedic collection of information is awe inspiring here, as always. Part of the pleasure of seeing his plays is to be exposed to cultural and historical materials one has not previously explored. His command of the language seems total, never an end to amusing wit and wordplay underlining his thematic exposition. If Stoppard's plot lines in these plays are more expository than propelling, lacking, perhaps, any traditional sense of protagonist/antagonist or conflict/resolution, we nonetheless sit transfixed through the sheer fascinating complexity of his juxtapositions of ideas.
The risk of such a play is that without acting and direction of the very highest caliber, the yeasty mix can flatten quickly. The sparkly dialogue must float out, an appropriate pace established and maintained. Since it is a dense listening experience, articulation and projection are essential.
In Perloff's production the results are mixed. The leads, Susan Gibney as Flora, and Art Malik as her Indian artist friend, Nirad Das, are first rate in every way, wryly catching both the chemistry and the cross cultural difficulties of the central relationship in the play. Jean Stapleton, playing Flora's sister, retains her delicious sense of comic timing, but her generic American accent was inappropriate and off-putting, her projection on opening night was poor, and her flubbed lines probably should be blamed on what seemed an inadequately rehearsed show. Eldon Pike, Flora's American biographer, was played by Ken Grantham, whose buffoonish interpretation of the role weakened the premise; it is far more powerful to make us laugh at an academic who retains dignity even as his foibles are exposed. Grantham's over broad playing should properly be blamed on poor direction; his poor timing and missed lines on opening night are his very own embarrassment. Settings and costuming were adequate, if undistinguished.
CV was glad to be able to see this play and a good deal of the evening was pleasurable. Nonetheless, the inadequacies of the performance were dampening and put a rather sad stamp of provinciality on ACT's production. Since Perloff both directed this production and is artistic director of ACT, the shortcomings here are squarely her responsibility. The uneven pacing throughout the evening and the unbalanced quality of the performances are partly, perhaps, the responsibility of the casting choices (i.e., the artistic director), largely the responsibility of the stage director who has presented us with what feels like an incomplete job.
ACT is to be applauded for its initiative in bringing a challenging and valuable play to town. The question must be raised as to whether the company would do better to stick to works that can be mounted successfully within its artistic and budgetary constraints.
- Arthur Lazere