PCPA's Severson Theatre plays host to two very different plays, “An Iliad” and “Muthaland,” presented in rotating repertory. The common thread between the two: both focus on a single performer who takes on many roles. The intimacy of the Severson helps these storytellers play off the audience, and even interact with them directly. This is theater in its purest form.
Upon entering the theater, we find only a ladder, a couple of brooms, a dustpan, a trash can, and a small bag of props.
The play takes place in a strange theatrical limbo. Here, an unnamed poet (Tarah Flanagan) is fated to tell the legend of the Trojan War over and over, throughout human history. “Every time I sing this song,” she says, “I hope it's the last.”
Playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare attempt to revive what the story was like when it was part of an oral storytelling tradition, before the poet Homer wrote it down and made it “THE Iliad.” O'Hare played the poet in the 2012 Off-Broadway production.
There's a somewhat lengthy preamble, as the slightly mad poet gets her bearings.
In a clever use of a basic prop, she pours a line of sand from a bottle to represent the walls of Troy. This thin, impermanent line is all that divides the two armies. At this point, the war has worn on for nine long years.
Having all the roles played by a single person allows us to focus on the more intimate human details of the epic. Experiences of people on both sides of the conflict are touched upon. The main focus is on the Greek hero Achilles and the Trojan hero, Hector. Achilles is insulted by his commander and refuses to fight any longer. But fate conspires to draw him back into battle. Meanwhile, in Troy, Hector's wife begs him to stay off the front lines, as he has a newborn son to raise.
Flanagan transitions from one character to another with ease. She even conveys their differing physiques, from the imposing stature of the demigod Achilles, to the frailty of the elderly Trojan king, Priam. Flanagan also co-directs the production, along with Andrew Carlson.
The poet begs the Muses for assistance. Eventually, one Muse answers the call, in the form of a cello player (the talented young Eva Scholz-Carlson). This mysterious figure doesn't speak, but her music (which Scholz-Carlson also composed) draws out the emotion of the story. When she appears, the narrative begins to flow.
The lighting (Jennifer 'Z' Zornow) is also essential in shifting the mood from moment to moment.
One beautiful passage of the play paints an idyllic portrait of Troy. “That was before the war,” the poet reminds us. Naturally, being a war story, there's plenty of disturbing content. For one thing, there's the way Achilles and his commander casually refer to women as “the spoils of war,” alongside plundered treasure.
Frequently, the poet addresses the modern audience directly, re-explaining the story in terms we can relate to. Sometimes, it's done for comic effect, but it also leads into the more serious themes. This story is, in a sense, the story of every war. There's even a monologue that lists off all the major conflicts in human history.
This concept is also reflected in Flanagan's costume (Costumers: Flanagan and Hayley Ryan), a pilot's helmet and jacket, chain mail with gaping holes, and a bloodied-looking tunic.
A major theme is the human capacity for rage. At one point, the poet even links the heat of battle to the feeling of getting cut off on the freeway. We're reminded that even “good” people can succumb to rage, but likewise, hot-tempered warriors can have a reasonable moment.
This time, we enter to find only a chair, a small stage light, and again, a small bag of props.
“Muthaland” is more down-to-Earth than the very mythical, theatrical “Iliad.” Its plot structure is more traditional for a one-woman show.
It's an autobiographical piece, written and performed by Minita Gandhi. This is a rare opportunity to witness a playwright performing her own work on a local stage. It can be harder to play yourself onstage than it is to step into another role. There's no mask to hide behind. In “Muthaland,” the audience is permitted to share in a deeply personal story.
Minita's family immigrated from India to America when she was very young. Her cultural/generational clashes with her parents make for some very funny moments, particularly when discussing sex. As with Iliad's Flanagan, Gandhi is adept at switching rapidly from one character to another.
Another contentious topic is Minita's acting career, which her father refers to as a “hobby.” When she wants to go off to “the conservatory” (presumably PCPA, of which Gandhi is an alumnus) her parents are initially reluctant, but ultimately supportive.
But they still desperately want her to get married. And then, her brother agrees to an arranged marriage in India. She thinks he must have been pressured into it, but he insists he's in love. Witnessing this Bollywood-style romanticism rekindles her feelings for an ex-boyfriend.
Traveling back to the titular “Muthaland” for her brother's wedding, Minita explores her unique relationship to her cultural identity. Brightly colored flower petals are scattered across the stage to represent the change of scene. Gandhi herself performs a quick change right onstage, donning beautifully detailed Indian attire. (Wardrobe by Wendy Stark-Prey.) Impressively, she even performs a Bollywood dance number. (Choreography by Gandhi and Anu Bhatt.)
The transition from the comical early scenes to heavier subject matter is handled smoothly. Once again, Zornow's lighting helps shift the mood.
The play addresses the topic of sexual assault, and the ways some people attempt to cover it up or ignore it. In one disturbing scene, the lighting narrows down to just Minita, as if the darkness is closing in on her.
Gandhi's play is a tribute to her family as well as various strangers who showed her kindness along her journey. In a particularly moving scene, Minita's mother reveals a previously untold story from just before she was born.
It's a compliment to say that director Heidi Stillman renders her hand in this production mostly invisible. It seems as if it's just we the audience and the playwright, sharing this experience.