'The Clay Cart'

In the Bowmer Theatre on Saturday, Oregon Shakespeare Festival aired a sterling example of classical Indian drama, "The Clay Cart." And what a breath of fresh air it is! Though written more than 2,000 years ago, and rarely performed in the western world, now under Bill Rauch's resourceful direction, it glitters and glows and emerges as a fascinating fable.

This romantic comedy with low-caste high jinks, whose theme is that character &

not birth, family, or wealth &

is all-important, is attributed to King Shudruka, and here translated by J.A.B. van Buitenen in a mix of prose and sometimes rhymed verse. It is set in Ujjayini, one of the Hindu sacred cities in central India.

The handsome hero, Charudatta (Christofer Jean), is a noble and gracious Brahmin who has fallen on hard times, but is everywhere held in high esteem. Eyeing him desirously is the heroine, Vasantasena (Miriam A. Laube), a beautiful bejeweled but lovelorn courtesan who suffers the unwelcome attentions of the villainous Samsthanaka (Brent Hickley). He is little more than a lustful lout and a blow-hard, always touting his brother-in-law relationship with the evil King Palaka. Jewelry figures largely in the plot, as well as confusion over coaches and a violent attack in a park. It all leads to a cliffhanger close.

Christopher Acebo, OSF's associate artistic director, has devised a wondrous scenic design. He uses the revolving stage topped with a glaze that gives it a lustrous sheen, the circular area being used for most of the action. The sculptures that line the front of the stage and the printed sculptures to the rear are based on the temple structures of medieval Hindu India. There are, besides, columns and steps. And there's a whole array of lush cushions that are cleverly used throughout the play and sometimes tossed through the air to be caught by the actors. However, when a door is required, we imagine one &

an actor standing with a pole for admittance or exit.

No question, the subtle light design by Christopher Akerlind enhances the setting, particularly with the myriad hanging lanterns that sway in the breeze. And when it comes to music and song, Andre Pluess, the composer and sound designer, provides haunting melodies for the on-stage combo of three musicians who play exotic instruments that include tabla, udo (Nigerian clay pot), cajon (Peruvian box drums), Thai gongs and sarod (stringed instrument). Deborah M. Dryden's costume design is eye-catching, particularly because of the wonderfully blended colors and materials.

The play opens with a musical Benediction that invokes Shiva, the god of dance. It benefits throughout from the expertise of choreographer Anjana Ambegaokar, who was herself trained in Kathak, one of the most popular forms of Indian classical dance, characterized by fast footwork, spins, hand gestures, precision and grace.

In his first role with OSF, Brent Hinkley as Samsthanaka, brother-in-law to King Palaka, displays a fine comic command with his brag and bluster and slash of sword. His mother, played by the inimitable Dee Maaske, humors him and delivers a couple of well-deserved bonks to his belly with her bag. Michael J. Hume as Maitreya, Charudatta's protector and loyal friend, adds greatly to the fun; he's a master buffoon. Christofer Jean as Charudatta, the impoverished hero, stands tall in stature and gentility and faces death with admirable equanimity, while Miriam A. Laube is adorable as Vasantasena, the courtesan he loves. They are a delight together.

Two other performers stand out. First, Richard Howard as Sharvilaka, a Brahmin thief who comes armed with Kanakashakti's "Manual of Burglary" and all the tools to do the job: steal Vasantasena's golden jewel-box. It's a comic highlight. Second is the professional-masseur-turned-gambler who becomes a Buddhist monk. Jeffrey King is splendid in each capacity and resplendent in his voluminous saffron monk's habit.

At play's end, Charudatta tells us the parable of the water buckets on the irrigation wheel, and then the cast sends the audience home with a blessing. We have witnessed a diverting entertainment, imaginatively and inventively staged. One thing I know: It's my cup of Darjeeling!

"The Clay Cart" plays through Nov. 2.

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