When there is a deep, emotional bond created between the artist and the spectator, third century Hindu sages termed that bridge rasa. A..C.T.’s Indian Ink not only explores in a beautiful, moving symphony of words and scenes what it takes to create a state of rasa; but as directed by Carey Perloff and acted by a superior cast, Indian Ink produces rasa between its large, diverse cast and its audience. The Hindu poet Bharata describes eight different types of rasa. This Stoppard revival, set in a remote part of India in both the late 1920s and in the 1990s, brings to full fruition several of these eight as two connected, time-separated tales are intertwined and juxtaposed. Bursts of hasya (comic) occur as English meets Indian cultures and stereotypes in both time periods. Explosions of raudra (furious) erupt as the Indian caste system plays out and as Indian anger with English domination (present and past) peeks its head among the otherwise docile, native people. And in particular, shringara (erotic) rasa paints the stage in its traditionally paired shades of blue and black as an English female poet and a male Indian artist move closer and closer from a developing friendship to a forbidden night of love.
This is a well-cast play from the most minor to the key players. Brenda Meaney is the visiting English poet who deliciously plays a saucy, smart, sexy poet who rejects early 20th Century boundaries on women and worries little about and even relishes misperceptions about her reputation. The friendship she gingerly and tenderly develops with a young, Indian artist (Nirad Das played by Firdous Bamji) is a masterful dance we watch between the two skilled actors as they test and honor sensitivities, as they approach intimacies and then back off when the closeness is premature, and as they reveal to each other aspects of themselves that probably few, if any, others have ever seen.
Mr. Bamji’s portrayal of Mr. Das is stunning and brings a character to stage like none I have ever seen. He is at times so shy with frequent downcast eyes and tilted head, is at other times very coy and playful with a scarf that is used to hide his face or smother a laugh or a tear, and is often daring in the audacity of what he wants to do and say to this intriguing English woman. Modern characters in the parallel story are equally powerful. In particular, Eleanor Swan, as the modern sister Roberta Maxwell of the play’s early twentieth-century poet, is wonderfully adept with her one-liners that catch her information-seeking visitors off-guard. Her visitors are the handsome and sensitive son of our earlier artist (Nazrul played by Vandit Bhatt) and a somewhat silly, naïve, yet likeable history professor (Anthony Fusco as Eldon Pike) obsessed with the rather obscure, early century poet, Flora Crewe. Both come to Ms. Meaney to discover (and reveal) ‘truths’ about the poet and her loves.
Full of Stoppard details and historical references, the play is awash with history, with humor, with true and false discoveries, and with relationships that develop cautiously, genuinely, and steadfastly. At three hours, there is not a moment the play lags; and the story is one we want to know in full and that we come to care about. What we do learn is that our historical ‘facts’ and ‘experts’ may not be everything we and they make themselves out to be; and that the ‘truth’ of our own and our loved ones’ pasts may be just as well a part of their mystique and mystery.