American Jataka Tales
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 18, 2009
This is from the program:
So what does jataka mean?
If you walk around big Buddhist monuments in Southeast Asia, you will see illustrations of stories about previous lives of the Buddha. These moral stories, called Jataka (from the Sanskrit word Jati, "birth"), tell about beings in life crises.
American Jataka Tales, a new play by Ed Malin, strives to create some of these fable-type stories on purely American themes. It consists of a number of short vignettes, set in various American locales (though often in the American South) from the time of the Revolutionary War up to the present day. A framing device has Buddha introducing these Western takes on Eastern philosophy/religion, sometimes with a brief poem and other times setting the stage with a few choice lines of introduction.
The stories themselves run the gamut from a quick and fun Aesop-like tale of a prairie dog who decides to leave the pack to a very contemporary and ultimately wistful account of a lonely 12-year-old boy who takes an unexpected journey in place of a long-anticipated family vacation.
Most of the pieces are humorous, with the funniest (and my favorite) being one about two present-day Americans arriving at an airport in Russia. The surfer dude's encounter with the Muscovite customs agent in this sequence is pretty hilarious.
What was missing for me, though, was the moral sense of purpose that I expected from the above definition of jataka: these short Tales meander through a variety of territory but don't, individually or together, arrive at any particular place of meaning or affirmation. Instead, they feel random and loosely collected. There are insightful and entertaining moments here and there, but I couldn't make the play as a whole add up to much.
Malin's writing is clever, especially when he indulges in his clear gift for wordplay. The staging, by Mark Duncan, is bare bones and functional. Of the four actors in the ensemble, John Calvin Kelly is the standout; American Jataka Tales is a great showcase for this talented young performer, who gets to don many different personas and accents throughout the proceedings. His Surfer Dude is a riot.