Touting an 8+ year development process, countless participating artists, and the longest list of donors and grants I’ve ever heard, the Shaw Festival’s long-awaited presentation of Why Not Theatre’s Mahabharata premiered yesterday with a double header of its two parts: Karma and Dharma.
Everything about the way Mahabharata is being presented feels like the key word in development meetings was “epic”. A pandemic cancellation purportedly too big and complex to make it to the stage before the 2023 season, the production boasts a large multi-hyphenate cast, a three-company team (“in association with Barbican, London”), and a pending world tour (what this means exactly beyond NOTL & London isn’t quite clear). At every turn, every effort is made to make Mahabharata seem huge, an instinct I understand because the legends being adapted loom so large, but it’s frustrating because the production is at its very best when it feels small.
I was intimidated walking into Ravi Jain & Miriam Fernandes’ adaptation with zero working knowledge of the ancient Sanskrit story or any of its many characters. Early on, Fernandes’ warm and reassuring storyteller tells the audience “don’t be confused by plots”, which of course prompted me to panic ‘oh god, I’m going to be so confused by plots!’. But, even with interconnected characters to keep track of spanning generations, I found the piece remarkably easy to follow. The plots, at least. I couldn’t tell you all their names, but I could pretty easily tell you who everyone was and how they were related and why they felt the way they felt. The talented cast (beautifully representative of age, gender, and body diversity) artfully embodies up to four different roles per performer and clearly communicates everything we need to know through dialogue, song, and Brandy Leary’s stirringly ranging choreographed movement. The performances aren’t perfect (opening day sported a notable number of line flubs) but they’re clear, mellow, and grounded.
In Karma (part one), the piece’s structure and staging embraces clarity and simplicity. Near constant music is performed live by a small ensemble of onstage performers and a ring of red sand forms the evocative centrepiece of Lorenzo Savoini’s restrained set design. Fernandes takes centre stage, guiding the audience through not only the stories but the role of the storyteller. There is magic here, spells cast by the human voice and body and the thrill of how dust hangs in the air.
In Dharma (part two), we lose the thread. The story gets bigger as the characters go to war and, in an attempt to stylistically differentiate the two sections and up the ante on Karma‘s intimate simmer, the production becomes a series of gimmicks. The much-promoted mini-opera that takes over the first half of Dharma is beautifully performed by Meher Pavri and well lit by the always reliable Kevin Lamotte but it slows the action to a crawl and fills the stage with unnecessary projections that literalize the mysticism part one had already inspired in our imaginations. Technology and production design are the great downfall of part two across the board as projected video distracts from important conversations and recorded audio pales in comparison to part one’s tangibility. Dharma drags, flounders, and still clocks in under two hours without its unnecessary intermission.
I understand that distillation was a major part of the development process for this piece and Jain & Fernandes seem to have done a beautiful job of focusing a sprawling legend into a clear and digestible narrative. They’ve perhaps done a better job than they meant to. Why Not’s Mahabharata isn’t epic. At its best it’s intimate and immediate and personal. The heart of this production could easily be condensed into a single sub-three-hour play with a much smaller budget, something that could be toured and recreated and spread around the world beyond just large well-funded theatres with projection screens. At its heart, Mahabharata is movement, song, and storytelling- timeless forms, untethered and therefore unlimited. Its most evocative tales are told within a simple ring of sand. In its quest to live up to the moniker “epic”, the adaptation loses its way.