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The Clay Cart

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Feb. 24th, 2008 | 11:20 am

The Clay CartAshland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
opening performance, February 23, 2008

The Clay Cart by Sudraka (Translated by J.A.B. van Buitenen)

I've never seen a live-action Disney cartoon pageant before.  It was wonderful!

A rich, gorgeous stage filled with 40-some actors hosted this 2000-year-old play. The cast moved the story and the audience with their words, gestures, dance, and singing.  A funny, poignant, and biting social comedy, the evening was completely enjoyable and satisfying.  Its challenges, heroes,  problems, and villains were no lifeless abstract ancient stylizations -- we still fight the same evil kings and their rapacious cronies.

It's impossible to describe The Clay Cart without nodding to Shakespeare.  Sudraka may have lived 1500 years before and a continent away, but these two both knew how to comment on their times, give moral guidance, and make it a lot of fun.

The Clay Cart's tells of the love between Charudatta (Christopher Jean, pictured at right) and Vasatasena (Miriam A. Laube, pictured at left).  He is an honorable, generous man who gave away so much that he's now poor. She is a still-rich whore (called most often, delicately, a "courtesan") with a heart of gold. She is aggressively pursued by the immoral Samsthanaka (Brent Hinkley), brother-in-law to the evil king.  Eventually the good boy gets the girl as his second wife... the first wife and son are on stage, too. All loose ends are tied up, and every good guy is rewarded and every bad guy is brought down.

Getting to the happy ending is just so entertaining!

Director Bill Rauch vision is innovative and powerful.  He created a on-stage theater in the round. The characters come to the center for their scenes and then recede into the on-stage ensemble, laying back on rich pillows, to follow the action of others while the real audience watches everyone.

A friend raved about the high tech special effects of the performance.   But, when we an analyzed the evening, Rauch gave us none.  The precision and power of the performance made it feel like there was amazing technology on the loose.  It was simply spot-on movement and choreography that popped.

In fact, the staging was super-low tech and simple.  The horses and carriages called for by the script were played by people prancing like stallions and carrying clothes to serve as coaches, just like you did when you put on your childhood backyard shows with cast-away sheets. Writing about the technique, I cannot believe it worked, much less describe how well it worked!

The company was unobtrusively perfect. They delivered their lines without phony accents or straining. Straight-up and true.

The individual actors dazzled as the script put them into the spotlight.  Jean was strong as a low-key moral man. Laube was stunningly pretty and without any affectation which could have easily crept into her courtesan character. Perfect.

Michael Hume played Maitreya, a pompous friend of Charudatta.  His role was both comic relief and checker of reality, and each aspect was carried off superbly.  Special ku-dos to him for allowing some of his bouncy flab to show -- the visual heightened the "Oh my God!" Polonius-ness of Maitreya. 

Actually, the mixture of the pretty and the pretty-gross flesh of different colors on stage gave an extra everyman feel to the production.  While Laube and many of the younger men were visual feasts, the costumes were tasteful, reasonable, and also worn by actors with kinda icky bodies.  Together, especially because of their large number, they made quite a collage.

Regular OSF audience members will get a kick out of the fact that perpetual picked-upon dumpling, Eileen DeSandre (as slave Madanika), finally gets her own man in this play.  Seeing Catherine Colson (as Vasatasena 's mother) with nose jewelery and proper Jim Edmonson drive his invisible bed-sheet horses is extra fun for whose who've seen these actors in very different roles throughout the years.

Looking over the cast, I can recall brilliant flashes from so many of the players as they had their turn in telling the story.  Richard Howard as a thief, Jenny Park as wife #1, Jeffrey King as a gambler and monk,... the list of accolade-deserving truly goes on and on.  As I look at most anyone's name a day later, I remember something they gave to the show. 

I confess that when I signed up to see this ancient play by "India's Shakespeare" I was worried.  The production had the disquieting patina of being "good for you".  I walked out of the theater stunned about how it was so much fun for me.

Ozdachs Rating: Rating 5 out of 5

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