TAJ from a concept by Lata Pata, written by John Murrell, choreography by Kumudini Lakhia, directed by Tom Diamond (Luminato). Saturday 2 and 8 pm, Sunday 2 pm. $51.50-$71.50. 416-368-4849, luminato.com. See listing. Rating: NN
If you're going to hire Lisa Ray, one of the most beautiful women in the country, to act onstage, please don't cover her head for 97 percent of the show.
Alas, that's the least of the problems with TAJ, an awkward and graceless telling, in dance and text, of the love story that inspired the building of the architectural wonder that is the Taj Mahal.
I use the word "telling" because that's what John Murrell's script continually does, breaking the cardinal rule that one should show and not tell. To make matters worse, the Governor General's Award-winning playwright employs a poetic language that comes across as archaic and stiff, which further distances us from feeling anything about the love between the 17th century great Moghal emperor Shah Jahan (Kabir Bedi) and his wife Mumtaz Mahal.
Imprisoned in a fort by his son, Aurangzeb (Sid Sawant), Jahan reflects on his special wife (presumably one of many, but we don't hear about the others). His devoted daughter Jahanara (Ray) occasionally pops in to comfort him, her head covered not for anonymity but because of a tragedy that you just know is going to be revealed later on.
As directed by Tom Diamond (who should know better), Bedi and Ray deliver their lines in the quavering, impassioned tones of amateur actors trying to sound serious and regal. It's a wonder they don't fling the backs of their hands against their foreheads with each throbbing pronouncement.
The writing's not all terrible. Although late in the show, a section on the building of the Taj Mahal comes across as vivid and clear. Jacques Collin's video projections of the building help a lot here and elsewhere, establishing mood and setting.
It's in this sequence, too, that TAJ's most compelling theme emerges. We learn that many workers died during the arduous construction of the Taj Mahal - something that a better playwright would have dramatized. Is one man's symbolic tribute to the woman he loved worth the lives of others?
But the play's own architecture needs serious work. The beginning is disorienting, and Murrell doesn't fully explain Aurangzeb's fight with his father. We don't feel passion of any sort - just boredom.
Still, the piece is being put on by Sampradaya Dance Creations, who are celebrating their 20th season this year with this Luminato commission. I'm an admirer of Sampradaya's artistic director Lata Pada, whose work has made it onto my annual Top 10 dance productions of the year list.
So it's no surprise that TAJ is best when the dancers, beautifully costumed by Rashmni Varma, take to the stage. Although kathak master Kumudini Lakhia's movement isn't fully integrated into the story, several early scenes depicting the two lovers work well.
Sooraj Subramaniam's effortless, virtuosic spinning as the young Jahan makes you believe in the character's passion and love in a way that Murrell's words (and Bedi's performance) don't.