Author: MacKillop, James
Date published: January 18, 2012
Away in Bombay
Two aging women find themselves during an India trip in the Redhouse's A Perfect Ganesh
Tourists have a bad reputation: spoiled, demanding, superficial, gullible and oblivious. To be a traveler sounds so much better: to explore, to discover and to enlarge one's vision. The difference is explored in Terrence McNally's 1993 play A Perfect Ganesh, the current production at Armory Square's Redhouse arts venue, 201 S. West St.
Two affluent Connecticut matrons, the uptight Margaret Civil (Susannah Berryman) and the unzipped Katharine Brynne (Laura Austin), have been taking periodic breaks from their empty nests and stale marriages to become classic tourists on sunny Caribbean shores. For a change of pace, and responding to the allure of the Taj Mahal, the pair opt to go to India, by themselves, as travelers. Their journey, much of it inward, is filled with the unexpected.
Despite redolent portents of the subcontinent, Ganesh starts out feeling like a light comedy. First we see a singer-dancer in Indian costume (Binaifer Dabu), an addition to the script. She pops up at left and right a half-dozen times, partially reminding us of the allure of India, overriding the poverty. The god Ganesh or Ganesha himself (J.T. Reed) appears suddenly, replete with an elephant head, proclaiming cryptically: "I am everywhere. I am in all. I am in your kiss as well as in your cancer."
Both are fleeting preludes to laughter as Margaret and Katharine prepare to board for their long flight to Bombay. One packs neat; the other can't keep track of her bags. Dyspeptic Margaret allows that she really doesn't like to fly in any regard, not just halfway around the globe. Rapturous Katharine swoons, "Oh, for a muse of fire," sure that fantastical delights await them.
Teasing, or perhaps tormenting, the women is the Air India check-in clerk (Adam Perabo), who tells them, falsely, that their reservations have been lost and that they'll have to stay home. To make amends, he upgrades them to Maharini Class, where Margaret especially feels they belong. Perabo subsequently appears as every other male in the narrative: Eastern and Western, butch and swishy, subservient and cocky, even as a leper and a corpse.
Having performers double up in small roles has been around since Shakespeare's time. An actor's ability to deliver such bravura turns delights audiences, and Perabo, a favorite of director Stephen Svoboda from last winter's Redhouse performance of Odysseus DOA, clearly has the chops to deliver what he's asked to do.
As the women penetrate more deeply to India, and we learn about playwright McNally's extensive knowledge of Hinduism, we can see that he intends all the Perabo characters to contribute to the larger theme of mutability. Just as Ganesh is in all, we must also discover more of ourselves in the variety of different persons we meet.
Of all the audacity McNally calls for-such as switching back and forth in time, and a boat trip on the Ganges at night-the hardest is finding depth and empathy in people who first appear to be clichés. The two women are initially so clueless that one claims that Ganesh sounds like a Jewish food, perhaps "son of bagel." In a riotous inside joke, McNally has Katharine thank people with the word "Ladesh," which the cognoscenti recognize as a taboo gay slang term.
Yet their very lack of preparedness allows them to be startled by the unexpectedness of what they find, especially the funeral pyres at Benares/Veranese. It's the play's gutsiest scene, mixing horror, piety and absurdity. Using the temporary stage turntable (whose castors could use some oil), director Svoboda has Ganesh the helmsman impassively intoning what is passing by, such as corpses or dogs and cows, as the women watch the mourners burning the remains of their loved ones, celebrated rather than discarded. A fiery muse, all right, but not quite what Katharine anticipated.
Revelations do not come all at once, but the women's sequential secrets both unite and separate them, as in another symbol from Eastern religion, the yin and yang. Katharine feels that she was born white trash and is a stranger to the upper class, which she has joined through chance. Empty nests make both women feel useless, and marriage is no compensation. A mastectomy has made Margaret feel less a woman, and she knows her husband has a mistress.
More deeply, both are wracked by grief: Margaret's son was felled in a childhood accident in Greenwich Village; Katharine's son was murdered by street thugs for being gay. Although Katharine has been suppressing the guilt she feels for having rejected his sexuality, she now bellows her agony. She would like to find the most abject victim in India, perhaps a leper, to kiss and recognize his humanity. Getting it out is lancing her own boil.
Which leads us back to the title. In A Perfect Ganesh, a gay American playwright searches for transcendence. We know McNally's disappointment with the Christianity of his childhood, as seen in his Corpus Christi, produced by Dan Tursi's Rarely Done company last spring. Like so many Western artists before him, going back at least to Aldous Huxley and Jack Kerouac, McNally finds solace in the faiths of the East.
Ganesh, who is widely worshiped in India, takes many forms. He is mutability and universality, the embodiment of universal life. Auspicious beginnings and removal of obstacles are his specialties. Despite the distinctive elephant trunk he may be depicted with as many as five heads or with broken tusks. In India, a poor country, shabbily made trinkets may be made of him for sale at lesser shrines. When she is faced with these choices Katharine declares she wants to take home a perfect model, as the perfect one would be unobtainable.
McNally is a gay playwright who loves women so much he wants to give them lots to do. Redhouse artistic director Laura Austin finds herself as Katharine, the noisy matron with the longer arc. Her barbs directed at Margaret draw blood: "I am not your cowed daughter or your catatonic husband, and I am not about to become your cowed and catatonic traveling companion." Much of her feeling lies near the surface, which means that Katharine's speeches generate fireworks. She also has more gag lines, which Austin knows how to zing. She even gets us to overlook that she's too young to be quoting her grandchildren.
Ithaca-based Equity player Susannah Berryman already gave audiences her interpretation of Katharine in a January 2003 Kitchen Theatre Company production. The bossy Margaret is harder to like, making Berryman's performance all the more impressive. In a lengthy digression in which she imagines herself the subject of Rembrandt's "Woman Bathing," she reveals the large and affecting sensibility under the pinched stoicism that keeps her from ever speaking the depth of her genuine feeling.
The Redhouse's A Perfect Ganesh is fastpaced, funny and touching. If you don't see it you'll really have missed something.