UGLY AMERICANS ARE ENLIGHTENED BY A INDIAN GOD IN TERRENCE MCNALLY'S BOLLYWOOD TALE
GANESH, THE GOD OF INTELLECT AND WISDOM, BRINGS ENLIGHTENMENT TO PETALUMA.
Two older women venture to India in Cinnabar Theater's charming spring production of A PERFECT GANESH. The effervescent god of Indian folklore is now on stage through April 14th at Petaluma Cinnabar Stage. A PERFECT GANESH by Terrence McNally originally was performed over a decade ago at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and now has been given a Bollywood makeover by clever director, Michael Fontaine. However, the tale is more an Ugly American makeover than A Passage to India. The grumpy Margaret Civil played by the superb Laura Jorgensen and the sincere Katherine Brynne is played by local favorite Elly Lichenstein. They are two suburban matrons from Guildford, who change their vacation to the Caribbean and decide to go to India for a spiritual makeover.
American playwright Terrence McNally never ceases to amaze me his best includes Ragtime, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. His favorite city is San Francisco to workshop his new works at the New Conservatory of Theatre on Van Ness street. For more than 30 years, this iconic award winning playwright has provided us with some of the most thought provoking new works in American theatre. His body of work encompasses tragicomedies like Lisbon Traviata, Love! Valour! Compassion!, biographical drama Master Class, and many comedies The Ritz, It's Only a Play. And the deeply moving and lesser-known 1993 inspirational A PERFECT GANESH.
Margaret complains she wants to "see India from a comfortable seat, somewhat at a distance," she is a woman of little patience and less sympathy. Her companion is more enthusiastic. Both are excellent actors: Jorgensen is straight laced coping with her inner grief while, Lichenstein is "hippy cool", eager to embrace any new experience. As the first act opens you are not sure you are going to enjoy these two Americans, but they grow on you and McNally keeps the script fresh and Fontaine keeps the two and half hour buddy adventure moving.
Their tour guide is the elephant-headed, Ganesha, Hindu God of wisdom and mover of obstacles. Ganesha appears either as himself or in various spirits, nudging the women onto the road to self-discovery and getting them to confront their own guilt about their past. Both suffer from homophobia and racism, and are living meaningless, comfortable, suburban lives. The terrific Heren Patel is a stately clever God, moving elegantly along the stage and is wonderful in the roles this awesome Ganesha takes. The women on their first night at a five star hotel in Bombay meet Ganesha as he becomes Asian tourists: "Be careful of India. Be very careful here. If you're not, you may find yourself here." “Man” is played by the transforming John Browning who plays over 20 roles including the women's hotel servant who tells them in Hindi “for an extra 20 bucks I can fuck the both of you,” of course the women are blind to his kindness. Katherine speaks Spanish to him since that is the only other language she knows. Both women open the first act showing the Indian culture as much disrespect as they can muster up.
The script has a lot of dry humor and the story follows a linear timeline as the two women journey through the tourist India. It is deeply spiritual as Ganesha presents the women with hurdles as “Man” challenges their beliefs in order to get them to face up to their hidden tragedies. Civil refuses to recognize even her own pain and Katherine deals with her son, a gay man murdered by a gang of angry youths. The darker side of “Kitty” is less bitter, but she has a 100 pounds of sadness about to explode at any moment. McNally’s writing is as bright and fast unlike many writers, he never uses wit to avoid honesty. He allows us to look right into the hearts of these women, and the result is a quite inspirational play. There are several scenes that are among McNally’s best. One in which the two ladies and a fellow tourist take a boat ride down a river and watch the bodies, animal and human, float by; it is almost too painful to watch. Then the wit and humor of lost American Margaret says “We are basic white trash - I shopped my tits off today” and their guide responds “is that the same as Boston jugs”?
Fontaine moves his actors well on the open space and set designer, Wayne Hovey, manages to skillfully suggest such varied locations as an airport terminal and the Taj Mahal with a minimum of stage decoration and some projections. The costumes are authentically designed by Ellen Howes; Ganesha is dressed in gold and flowing robes. His head design was created by Donnie Frank and the busy sound design by Jared Emerson Johnson. Stage Manager Alisha Ramos has many props to move on and off stage including Ganesha’s elegant throne and three full size beds. Hovey also created the light design that includes a mirror disco ball and deep colors for the moods set by the elephant god. Original music was created by Christopher and Marni Ris with Ganesha’s choreography by Rann Shinar.
Patel as the god in everyman, the omnipresent Ganesha, is a calming presence, his performance is smooth and engaging as he materializes into several loving people. Both Jorgensen and Lichenstein are impressively versatile in their sterling interpretations of diverse characters who share a spiritual center and their relationship with Patel. The title of the show comes from Katherine's shopping for souvenir Ganeshes to take back home. It is ironic that she doesn't realize the moment she was holding the real Ganesha in her arms. The two leading ladies have the complex task of portraying women who, except for brief moments, do not reveal their inner selves.
Patel who spends the entire evening behind a mask, brings his characters to vivid life. A PERFECT GANESH meets its goal as the two women for the most part transform for the best. Through the character of Ganesh, McNally points the way to a better and more compassionate world, but in the end, he doesn’t seem to have a lot of faith that we’re going to get there. At the same time McNally's insistence that humankind's only hope lies in compassion and confession is moving. Next up at the Petaluma stage is THE BARBER OF SEVILLE opens June 7th, but in the meantime join the god of intellect and wisdom of GANESH, he could brighten up your spring.
Cinnabar Theater Presents
A Perfect Ganesh
Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by Michael Fontaine
Original Music by Christopher Ris
Choreography by Rann Shinar
Must Close April 14th
3333 Petaluma Blvd N,
Petaluma, CA 94952
Runs 2 hours 45 min with one intermission
Ganesh Heren Patel
Man John Browning Margaret Civil Laura Jorgensen
Katharine Brynne Elly Lichenstein