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Jay Emmanuel as Shiva with the cast of Mahabharata.David Cooper/Shaw Festival

  • Title: Mahabharata: Part One and Part Two
  • Written and adapted by: Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes with poetry from Carole Satyamurti
  • Director: Ravi Jain with Miriam Fernandes
  • Actors: Miriam Fernandes, Shawn Ahmed, Ellora Patnaik, Jay Emmanuel
  • Company: Why Not Theatre presented by the Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to March 26, 2023

Critic’s Pick

Whether The Mahabharata is central to your culture, or the only Dharma you know was married to a guy named Greg, Why Not Theatre’s often stunning new stage adaptation of the classic Indian epic is worth a pilgrimage to the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

For this two-part, five-hour show performed by an international cast of 14 actors (with five understudies on hand) from the South Asian diaspora, co-writers Ravi Jain and Miriam Fernandes have cut a clear path through the forest of stories found in the ancient Sanskrit poem that has been described as longest piece of literature in the world.

Like the best marathon theatre performances, this Mahabharata – the article “the” often affixed to the title in English was an easy cut, I guess – is long but never exhausting. There’s plenty of room to breathe built into its nested narratives, and regular shifts in form keep the performance fresh.

The first part, subtitled Karma, is simply first-rate storytelling theatre.

Fernandes is front and centre as an unnamed narrator, who, in the show’s framing device, is charming the unseen King Janamejaya with a chronicle of his own family history to distract him from a vengeful campaign to rid the planet of snakes by fire. (There’s a hint of 1001 Nights here – but with the stakes raised to the extinction of an entire species if this Scheherazade’s tales get tedious.)

Around Fernandes, the other actors slip in and out of a colossal cast of the king’s ancestors – ones who, playfully, don’t necessarily correspond to their own ages, body types, genders or ABC of accents (mostly Australian, British and Canadian).

These highly physical performers step or dance or creepily crawl in and out of a large circle of orange-red powder reminiscent of the sindoor used for religious purposes in Hinduism – but which I am reliably informed is actually mulched rubber. It eventually is scattered in a whirl of destruction to become the bloody earth of the battlefield in the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.

Who are they? Well, the primary task of Karma is to outline the complicated lineage of these princely cousins – they are afflicted by curses that affect fertility, bound by vows that makes succession a sticky business, and are part of an extended family that includes fish, bottles of ghee and a half-dozen deities.

Of the 100 Kaurava brothers, only one gets represented by an on-stage avatar – but luckily the muscular-in-all-senses actor Darren Kuppan has the presence of a dozen as Duryodhana. He’s brilliantly brooding, his scooping northern English accent adding a dash of Richard III to his portrait of this resentful ruler.

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Miriam Fernandes as The Storyteller.David Cooper/Shaw Festival

The five primary Pandava princes, meanwhile, are represented by three actors. The honest Yudhishthira is played with sensitivity by Shawn Ahmed and the ferocious Bhima by a boisterous bear-like Munish Sharma, while Anaka Maharaj-Sandhu, a fresh minted National Theatre School of Canada graduate, brings the countenance of a youthful matinée idol to the great archer Arjuna – who makes LOTR’s Legolas’s skills with a bow look dégueulasse.

Adding extra drama and momentum to their story that leads up to a dice game on which a kingdom is wagered, six on-stage musicians led by vocalist Suba Sankaran play instruments ranging from the bansuri to the electric bass; the enveloping and exciting music and sound design is co-credited to Sankaran and her bandmate John Gzowski.

In the second half of Mahabharata, subtitled Dharma, the now immediately impending war sees Jain try out more avant-garde directorial ideas even as the writing twists into more traditional scenes.

The lines borrowed from poet Carole Satyamurti’s English retelling for the script can sometimes sounds a little stilted as dialogue – and the occasional action-film cliché intrudes.

But the shifts in staging are compelling as the circles of the first part’s set design (brilliant, by Lorenzo Savoini) are replaced by rectangles: rugs lying on the ground and screens that lower from the flies to broadcast failed peace negotiations or expressionistic dispatches from a combat that threatens the cosmos.

When the initial battle is about to take place, Arjuna and the deity Krishna (the deliciously deadpan Neil D’Souza) have their famous conversation about life, the universe and everything known as the Bhagavad Gita – and the production suddenly bursts into opera and soprano Meher Pavri slowly crossing the stage singing Sanskrit lyrics (translated by English surtitles).

It is a testament to the overall cohesion of Jain’s production that this moment does not seem like interdisciplinarianism for the sake of it – but absolutely crucial to the storytelling.

That’s true too of the martial arts and dance elsewhere integrated by choreographer Brandy Leary. On those fronts, Ellora Patnaik (Raffo on CBC’s Sort Of) impresses with her Odissi dance-drama skills as matriarch Kunti, while Jay Emmanuel beautifully brings his Kathakali practice to a pair of characters in a way that sent shivers down my spine.

To go back to the double-pronged claim at the start of this review: As a theatre critic who barely knew The Mahabharata beyond reading about British director Peter Brook’s 1980s production, I found this adaptation of the unfamiliar material easy to follow – and Hindu concepts such as dharma contained therein fascinatingly communicated in all their complexity.

But it’s to my Globe and Mail colleague Sonali Verma, who grew up with all the details of this story, that I must attribute the observation that the show is also appealing to those well-versed in the original verses: She was impressed by how the creators both cut down and yet remained faithful to the epic.

That gaze-bridging success of this show bodes well as it embarks on an international tour starting in England later this year, which is an open secret given this run at the Shaw Festival is presented in association with London’s Barbican. Mahabharata is of a quality that certainly deserves a global showcase.

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