By the time you read this, it will be too late to see Wendell Theatre Group's production of Terrence McNally's 1993 play, A Perfect Ganesh, due to the limited run (Feb. 5-7) given this student group at Duke University's Sheafer Theater. Having missed this show is, at best, regrettable, and, at worst, tragic, for it was one of the most superlative works seen on Triangle stages (be they student or professional) in recent memory. The tale of two upper-crust Connecticut housewives persevering through an odyssey across India has been interpreted by director Amit V. Mahtaney (himself a national of the Subcontinent) and a uniformly magnificent cast with wit, affection, and aptitude.
Margaret Civil is brusque, efficient, and formal, whereas Katherine Brynne is brash, scattered, and provincial. Best friends (as superficially as that brief but loaded phrase will permit) and frequent vacation partners, they are traveling together for the first time sans husbands on a self-guided tour deviating radically from their usual jaunts to luxurious Caribbean shores. Unbeknownst to them, they're being observed by Ganesha, the happy, omnipresent, elephant-headed god invoked as a protector of travelers. The adventures they face without — Bombay at dawn as the homeless crowd sidewalks, boating on the Ganges amid corpses of dogs and people — are equally matched by the challenges faced within — guilt over the death of a child, recognition of disease, endurance of infidelity.
They embrace the exotic by translating it into the more manageable language of the familiar, as in Katherine's reaction to the Towers of Silence, the seven minarets used by the Parsis in accordance with religious laws forbidding the defilement of the elements. The dead are left upon these structures to be consumed by vultures. In reference to her own demise, Katherine says, "When I go, that's what I want done, Margaret. Just leave me out on the pier at the Greenwich Yacht Club and let the seagulls go to work."
What's more difficult to confront than a turret overflowing with human carrion is the mundane and everyday: racism, homophobia, class consciousness, ignorance inherent and imposed, and the terrifying knowledge that the person you call your best friend may in fact be a total stranger. It is indeterminable how much Mahtaney's understanding of the play results from his ethnic origins; it may be safe to say that his interest in this particular text is spurred by his connection to its environment. It's his considerable skill as a director, however, that has led to the creation of this remarkable, hilarious, and touching work of theater. He's shaped this show precisely and evenly; the pace never flags, comedy is sharp and honed, and emotion is examined without descent into sentimentality.
The cast — with Greg Anderson as Ganesha (and Ganesha stepping in as airline passenger, hotel housekeeper, train porter, tour guide, and boatsman, among other cameos); Caroline Alexander as Katherine Brynne; Caroline Patterson as Margaret Civil; and Danny Smith as a multipurpose Man inhabiting a sweep of roles from harried airline clerk to stoned flyer to Dutch tourist to misshapen puppeteer — is roundly exemplary, and Mahtaney fuses their significant individual talents into a peerless ensemble piece that allows every element to retain its distinctiveness while blending seamlessly into a single, stellar whole.
Strengths are showcased: Alexander manifests stunning emotional availability and proficiency in connecting with the text, Anderson is vibrant and committed with amazing stage presence, Patterson reveals enviable comedic gifts that she doesn't let hide her character's pain, and Smith shifts from one character to the next through exacting work with dialect and movement and never veers into stereotype. Weaknesses are not in evidence.
Supplementing McNally's cast is Mekhala Devi Natavar, instructor in Hindi and South Asian dance, culture, and literature at Duke. As well as choreographing a dance for Ganesh, Natavar begins the show with a captivating demonstration of Kathak, readying the audience for the journey to come.
This consistency of excellence extends beyond the cast to include the technical staff and production crew. Adam Sampieri's sound design underscores the proceedings faultlessly; it is evocative without ever edging past its purpose of enhancement into intrusion. Costumer Amy Knight* provides the cast with garments as infused with personality as the characters who don them, and scenic designer Naomi Masako Reagan has mutated a black box space into a field of white interrupted by bursts of brilliant color, merging form and function with grace.
A Perfect Ganesh is a rare and elusive example of theater, in which everything clicks — insightful, tender, funny script, talented and hardworking cast, inspired designers, and visionary director joining formidable forces to collectively make art because they love to. This is not only a model of what student theater should be, but a finely crafted production that sets the bar for professional efforts as well.
Editor's Note: Lissa Brennan is an actor, director, playwright, costumer, journalist and burlesque artist who has studied and performed in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, California, India, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic.
Wendell Theatre Group: http://www.duke.edu/web/wendell/. A Perfect Ganesh: http://www.duke.edu/web/wendell/Ganesh/index.html and http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=815.
*Correction noted 2/18/04: Amy Knight served as head of the costume crew, and the costume designer for the show was Jacqueline Langheim.
Note - 2/19/04: Amit V. Mahtaney, who directed the Wendell Theater Group's Feb. 5-7 presentation of A Perfect Ganesh, writes to correct an error in our review of the production. (Lissa Brennan's review credited Amy Knight as the show's costumer.) "Amy Knight was head of the costume crew," Mahtaney notes, "and the costume designer for the show was Jacqueline Langheim. If it is at all possible to note this somewhere on the page, I would greatly appreciate it, so that credit can be given where it is due."