nytheatre.com review by Edward Elefterion
August 18, 2011
According to the press release, “Sanyasi2011 is an Indian play from over a century ago, brought to life again by today’s storytellers. It is a beautiful and devastating story about an ascetic who puts aside the world, only to rediscover it through the love of a child.” I was excited to see it. But marketing is a magical thing and I’m sorry to report that Sanyasi2011 is neither beautiful nor devastating, and frankly not much happens at all.
The titular Sanyasi (enlightened one) renounces the world and all its trappings of attachment in a rambling opening speech, one filled more with poetic images than dramatic content (a feature of classical Indian drama, the tradition this play comes out of). Then the Sanyasi lives among the un-enlightened, repeatedly reasserting his elevated status to whoever approaches or shows an interest in him. One day, he meets a child and rejects her genuine affections only to later realize that he misses her, that he’s not a Sanyasi after all, and that he belongs with the child. But she’s dead. He says that she’ll never be dead and the play ends.
In the title role, Evan Sanderson overwhelms everything with a pervasive and distracting inappropriateness of energy. I lost ninety per cent of what he actually said because all I got was anger or self-satisfied arrogance. I kept waiting for this Sanyasi to notice that he was hardly enlightened at all, that he was the most un-enlightened, small-minded and self-centered character in the entire world of the play, but I’m not certain that’s part of the story. The way the character is written, he’s supposed to actually be enlightened (instead of a brat) and then genuinely renounce the ascetic life in order to pursue the joys and pleasures of being a full member of society. But, that’s not the way Sanderson played it, not the way his director, Ameneh Bordi, directed the play and, as a result, the overall sense was that nothing really happened.
The rest of the cast had moments of humor and were, as a whole, relaxed and still. They sat cross-legged and remarkably straight for long stretches of time. Those who sang did a fine job. The music by Keith Adams is based on the spirit of classical Indian music and helps to locate the production, giving the audience a sense of where we are. The costumes (uncredited in this production) are all of natural material and all Indian in style, cut and feeling but…worn by a multi-ethnic but clearly American cast entirely of non-Indians just emphasized the central problem with the production: Western actors trying to play a very Eastern art, one whose themes and methods can certainly be universally appreciated but hardly universally executed. Not to mention that Eastern audiences are used to Eastern dramatic structure where Western audiences simply are not.
I admire their choice of material and the commitment that the company makes in actually doing it, but the whole exercise is better suited for the classroom or workshop. Making such a vast leap into an entirely foreign art form, with apparently little if any actual training in that foreign art form, what else can the artists do but impose their usual way of thinking on it and force it into shapes that are inherently inorganic?