What could my mother be
to yours? What kin is my father to yours anyway? And how did you and I meet ever? But in love our hearts are as red earth and pouring rain: mingled beyond parting.
The above poem, written 2,000 years ago, forms the refrain that the lovers speak in The Inner World. The story is older than even the poetry: She, the town beauty, and He, a warrior from the mountains, find perfect love in a midnight meeting. Of course, as the story always goes, it's not going to be that easy, but in the euphoric moments before reality encroaches, they may wax on the glorious absurdity that brought them together to form such an unexpected whole.
Pangea World Theater is all about such unexpected mergers. The company's name, which literally means "across all earth," comes from the word geologists coined for the landmass that existed before the continents separated--and this name embodies an ethos. Pangea's debut production, 1996's Conference of the Birds, was an adaptation of a 12th-century Persian poem. This year's The Winged Seed was based on a memoir by Chinese American poet Li Young Lee, and in the next two years Pangea will produce plays by Athol Fugard and Sophocles, and adaptations of Black Elk Speaks and fiction by Chinua Achebe.
The Inner World brings Pangea co-founders Meena Natarajan and Dipankar Mukherjee back to their own home country, India--yet this freely conceived production knows no real nationality. The classically based text for The Inner World comes from 120 Tamil poems, skillfully pieced together by Natarajan, a local playwright. The poetry of this south-Indian language falls into two categories: the interior, which concerns lovers, and the exterior, which addresses societal forces such as war, heroes, and morality. As expressed through such archetypes as the lover, the courtesan, or the jealous neighbor, these poems form an epic narrative about the conflict between the interior and the exterior--the impossibility of perfect love in an imperfect society.
At the beginning of the play, a chance meeting between He (Leigh Gregory) and She (Anita Ratnam) leaves each yearning for the other. Perfect love seems attainable for our heroes; with one glance he would happily die for "just one day entwined/with her tender body," and she feels love "bigger than earth, certainly/higher than sky." And, soon, the stage hints at midnight, and the man descends from his mountain to the strains of a love song. She, upstage, slowly wraps herself in a billowing scarf.
The courtship begins: He approaches, gently takes the scarf, and uses it to run the contours of her body--a kind of worship. He wraps her and pulls her toward him--a form of possession. She unwinds herself and snakes the scarf between them. More dancing, then finally the scarf embraces the two together.
It doesn't take long for the exterior world to shatter their cocoon. Morning comes and whispers of "Whore!" and "Out!" sound across the stage. The four-person chorus descends onto the scene with faces twisted in animalistic hatred--hissing, smacking their hands, and lunging in a motion that is part martial arts, part Noh, and part demon possession. Their consonants make staccato stabs through heavy percussion and a foreboding melody as four bodies contort toward the audience.
This is love's opposite, and Tamil literature's other direction. As the play turns from interior love to the exterior world, the drama moves hate-ward. The man is called away to battle. And though love is no kin to violence, the two come to be irrevocably mixed. The chorus portrays thousand-man armies, screaming, fighting, and dying; and amid this, He thinks, "How I wish my girl,/my heart's mistress, were here with me/to share even this... ."
The themes are epic and eternal. This poetry and the production are as from a world before Babel in which the physical and verbal language of signs has a universal significance. The images in the poetry fly beyond metaphor into the actuality of the thing itself. A joyous midnight meeting is conveyed through the lines "With drops splattering/as they fall from the loud-voiced clouds/the rains have started on these lovely meadows/they play in the new water/that brings desire."
So, too, the actors convey meaning through the marriage of movement to language. There is no method acting here. The best Western analogy is Brecht's epic theater--where stock characters and stark gestures serve as a kind of narrative shorthand--and as with Brecht, the watching takes work. Sometimes the continental drift hurts Pangea; in Western drama we expect to see characters, not archetypes, and we focus on where a story will go, on what will happen next.
The Inner World, by contrast, proceeds at the pace of poetry, and each moment is excruciatingly detailed to create a certain Now. And an audience must shift its expectations from the known rhythms of anticipation to the less familiar--and perhaps more rewarding--songs of experience.
The Inner World runs through Sunday at Theatre de la Jeune Lune; call 333-6200.