From the Ashes
nytheatre.com review by Robert Attenweiler
June 15, 2007
Sometimes it's good to pull something off the street. Appearing as part of the National Asian American Theater Festival, Minneapolis-based Pangea World Theater's production of From The Ashes, written by Meena Natarajan, draws on the playwright's experience with street theatre in India to break down the separation between audience and performer. What's wonderful about this play is that, at it's best, it is quite successful in making the audience feel a part of the diverse cultural community represented on stage.
The play is only very loosely narrative, instead relying on strong physical movement and live music. The text is based on a report about the continued effect of 9/11 on immigrants in this country, and alternates between obviously satirical passages (such as the performers handing out flyers that read "Vote For Dumbfeld" during a rally) and the story of Cheche, a young girl played tenderly by Carey Morrison. Cheche, always wanting to see what's around the next corner, leaves home and, in one of the play's more compelling scenes, is called back home by each of the other performers, each in a different language. So, Cheche is the hopeful wanderer in search of a home and, not surprisingly, this hope is shaken throughout her journey.
All the while, the performance is backed by the enthralling taiko drumming of Sara Dejoras. Dejoras (who also plays the flute and maracas) stands powerfully between the two enormous drums creating the rhythmic undercurrent of the play. Combined with the actors' movement, Dejoras's music creates an engaging meditative quality that you can feel shaking through you with each beat of the drum. This, combined with the poetic abstraction of much of the text, kept me both physically and mentally engaged in whichever direction the story flowed.
The play is clearest during its more satirical moments, where well-played humor breaks up the intensity of the play, but its targets are familiar enough to rob them of significant flair. Where the play can really take our imagination in new directions is in the sections involving Cheche and her journey. If the production is successful in drawing us into the community of the play, it does not take full advantage of taking us to places we haven't been before. But it comes enticingly close. Dipankar Mukherjee's direction is smooth and sure and Katie Herron's fine acting solidifies the ensemble.
The call for justice and social action in From The Ashes is a sympathetic one. Should they continue to explore the limits of where they can take the audience after inviting them so effectively in, Natarajan, Mukherjee, and Pangea World Theater will be that much closer to sending that call, with us, back out to the streets.