Charles Roy wants to lull you into a trancelike state – in a good way.
SHAKUNTALA by Kalidasa, adapted and directed by Charles Roy, with Anita Majumdar, Sanjay Talwar, Pragna Desai and David Collins. Presented by Pleiades in association with Harbourfront Centre/World Stage at Fleck Dance Theatre (235 Queens Quay West). Previews Wednesday (February 4), opens February 5 and runs to February 15, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $30, preview and stu/srs $18. 416-973-4000.
Most directors would love audiences to sit on the edge of their seats when watching a play.
Not director Charles Roy. For his adaptation of the South Asian play Shakuntala, Roy hopes viewers sink back in their chairs and float on an aesthetic high.
Written in the fourth century by Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa, Shakuntala tells the tale of the title character, a sheltered young woman who meets King Dushyanta. They pledge their mutual love and he returns to court, but a curse causes him to forget her until they're reunited late in the play.
Roy explains that, like the ancient Greeks, a South Asian audience attending the theatre would know the narrative beforehand.
"That allowed them to enjoy the experience called rasa, which can be compared to the sensation felt at the end of a long, multi-course meal," he says. "The audience expects to sit back and savour all the tastes and flavours they've consumed. Our challenge is to share that experience with Western viewers, so we're blending Western and South Asian styles to reach what some have called a trancelike state.
"We hope," he smiles, "to set the audience adrift on the Rasa River."
One way the director plans to bring viewers into the world of the play is through dance.
"Classical Sanskrit theatre was heavily indebted to dance," he notes. "Each movement was stylized, every thought given a codified gesture. That enabled performers 1,600 years ago to communicate on two levels: verbal and gestural. We're using mime and bits of commedia dell'arte along with South Asian forms."
It sounds like what Opera Atelier does with its reinvention of 17th-century theatrical body movement; viewers can tell a character's emotional state from the actor's posture.
"Choreographer Hari Krishnan borrows from various South Asian styles such as Bharatanatya, Kathakali and Odissi, but there's also African mask dancing. We've taken a lot of freedom in borrowing from international dance, because that's part of our audience's cultural awareness."
The cultural mix is part of Roy's casting plan, too; his actors are South Asian, African Canadian, Irish, Kuwaiti and Canadian, giving the production a universal flavour.
Roy compares the story to those told in Shakespeare's late plays such as A Winter's Tale, where happiness is first lost and then regained.
"Shakuntala is about learning to love with grace, which is what Shakespeare dealt with in those plays. I think there's also something of A Midsummer Night's Dream's Oberon and Titania, too, where magic and supernatural figures affect the world of mortals."
All of these elements feed the idea of rasa, which Roy says was first described in the Natya Sastra, the central treatise of South Asian theatre.
And just so you're prepared, the same book also discusses the seven guidelines for how to be a good audience member.
"They include honesty and sensitivity to the human heart. But the key word I hope our viewers remember is openness. That will start them on Shakuntala's theatrical journey."