‘Myths Morph Into Intriguing Theater

15 September 2003 at 9:00 am (Press, Theatre) (, , , , , , )

by Renee Valois, Special to the Pioneer Press

Most best-selling novels are forgotten a generation or two after their debut. But the myths of ancient Greece are still famous thousands of years after they were first uttered. Some say that’s because their universal archetypes make them eternally relevant.

No doubt the overdramatic plots are a big reason for their enduring popularity, since it would be hard to find a collection of stories filled with more passion and violence, including, rape, murder, cannibalism and people being torn limb from limb.

Now Pangea World Theater has added its own mark to a script by Supple and Read that was adapted from English Poet Laureate Ted Hughes’ adaptation of the Roman poet Ovid’s adaptations of the myths in his Metamorphoses. In other words, this is heavily transmuted material, which is apropos given that the theme of the stories is transformation.

However, there can be difficulties in converting poetry into theater. Here, the scriptwriters have ignored the traditional adage to “show, not tell.” Characters spend a lot of time talking about their feelings before acting on them. There is also little dialogue, since the stories are mostly narrated.

Often a character will help tell her own story — in the third person. This makes portions of the show drag, giving it a leisurely feel strangely at odds with compelling moments of profound horror and violence.

On the plus side, director Dipankar Mukherjee takes some risks that make for an intriguing piece of theater. The production begins with singing and a sense of ceremony as candles are lit on the sides of the stage.

Diverse actor genders, races, body shapes and accents weave colorful threads into the tapestry of tales, and the cast occasionally adds lines of dialogue in different languages (which are not translated). Male and female actors sometimes play opposite genders, for instance, King Midas is played by a woman and the nymph Echo is played by a man.

The dozen cast members heighten the drama in a chorus not of words but of gestures. The moving sculpture of their bodies illuminates the tales.

When Midas discovers his mistake in wishing everything he touches will turn to gold, the cast in the shadows wrap themselves in skeins of metallic gold material. One man completely encircles his head until it’s a faceless blob. The symbolism is unmistakable.

A mythic feel is conveyed by little touches, such as glitter on the faces of the cast and an undulating flute that hauntingly signals transitions between stories along with the actors’ simultaneous exhalations — an audible “whoosh” of change.

There is some fine acting in the dozen-strong ensemble, with members all playing multiple roles, but there is also some over-the-top emoting. Given that the stories deal with such visceral events, that may not be a bad thing.

“Tales from Ovid” is an ambitious piece of theater that largely succeeds in making myths vivid; it is more unsettling to see incest and dismemberment acted out than merely to read about it. But it would have been a stronger play had the scriptwriters been less faithful to Hughes’ poetry and more faithful to the power of the original myths.

What: “Tales From Ovid” by Pangea World Theater
Where: The Playwrights’ Center
When: Thurs.-Sun. through Sept. 28
Tickets: $13 advance, $15 at door, $10 students/seniors
Information: 612-203-1088

Capsule: An interesting enactment of violent myths that is alternately dampened by long poetic monologues and enlivened by creative touches and a colorful cast.

Renee Valois is a freelance critic. Originally printed in St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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‘No Longer at Ease’ a thrilling dramatic journey

7 May 2001 at 9:00 am (Press, Shows, Theatre) (, , , )

‘No Longer at Ease’ a thrilling dramatic journey
By Jaime Meyer

“No Longer at Ease” begins with a seemingly endless frenzy of blessing. Obi Okonkwo is being sent from his home in Nigeria to England to become educated. His relatives and friends, who are paying his way, praise him, embrace him and pour protective chants over every inch of his being. Obi stands rigidly in his smokestack-gray European suit, a swirl of dancing, clapping Afrikaans encircling him, all dressed in the colors of sunrise. Some new creature is being born amid this glorious cacophony: not quite African any longer, not quite European, ever. Nigeria is at the dawn of independence from Britain, and Obi is the image of that new day. But, bit by bit over the next two hours onstage, Obi’s life splinters, then cracks, then shatters.

e.g. bailey’s adaptation of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s novel is a big-hearted, thrilling theatrical experience. Pangea World Theater’s production, directed by Dipankar Mukherjee, is sonically and visually overcrowded, and the acting is often underpolished. But the sheer force of bailey’s — and Achebe’s — storytelling, the emotional commitment of the actors and the power of luminous ideas leaping up from the text like solar flares coalesce into an extraordinary evening of theater.

Obi’s story may be specifically Nigerian in context, but it is universal in content. As he becomes educated and moves out into the world, he takes up residence in the rift between modern Western culture and ancient tribal values. Is he becoming absorbed into — or possessed by — the European mind? Or is he rightfully shedding outdated tribal customs? He falls in love with an educated woman who, it turns out, carries a generations-old ancestral curse. Marrying her would bring shame not only to his living family, but also to generations of his children not yet born. For him, this is nonsense; but for his family, it is unquestionable truth.

The beauty of Pangea’s production is in its evenhanded depiction of these burning dilemmas. A story that could become an easy harangue about white people, Europe, Christianity and colonialism becomes instead an intricate, magnetic dance of energies — social, political, religious, ethical and personal.

In the role of Obi, James Young II moves through the play like a single powerful muscle flexing and contracting again and again. As Clara, Obi’s cursed fiancee, marie-francoise theodore fills her character with a modern sexiness and ancient torment. Ronnell Wheeler’s ebullient African dance at the top of act two is a joyful highlight.

Mukherjee likes to direct the living daylights out of a show. Drums pound from above; actors hum and click their teeth and wave their arms in vaguely ritualistic motions; lights undulate across long banners hung from the ceiling, each painted with Seitu Jones’ symbolic visions.

Sometimes it’s all gorgeous, but too often, you feel you need to hack your way through the jungle of theatrics to make your way to the play. Still, it’s stimulating theater.


Jaime Meyer is a local free-lance reviewer. Originally printed in Saint Paul Pioneer Press.

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Pangea takes on an African classic

4 May 2001 at 9:00 am (Press, Shows, Theatre) (, , , , , )

Pangea takes on an African classic
by Rohan Preston (Star Tribune)

Chinua Achebe is a titan of African literature who lives a quiet life in upstate New York.

Pangea World Theater is a small, ambitious Minneapolis company interested in humanitarian issues. Somehow, the two connected; Pangea will produce the world premiere of the stage adaptation of “No Longer at Ease,” Achebe’s landmark 1960 novel about the conflict between tradition and modernity.

For Pangea, which has staged such heavyweights as “Ajax,” “Rashomon” and Athol Fugard’s “Playland,” this is another opportunity to tackle a world classic.

“No Longer at Ease” is a milestone in the history of literature, and producing it makes us a little nervous,” said Pangea literary manager  as she broke from a pre-rehearsal circle in Waring Jones Theater at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, where the play opens today. “We want to stage it with clarity, so that we can honor its achievement and bring some of its points into sharp, dramatic focus.”

“No Longer at Ease” is the second Achebe book to bring wide recognition to African literature. The main character in “Ease,” Obi Okonkwo, is a grandson of the protagonist in Achebe’s 1958 debut, “Things Fall Apart.”

Set on the eve of Nigeria’s independence from Britain, “Ease” revolves around Obi, a young man whose Ibo people have raised money to send him to school in England. After completing his education — he becomes a poet instead of, say, an engineer — he has returned, full of idealism. He is eager to help usher Nigeria into a new era.

Obi confronts the deep-seated traditions of his countrymen. His mother would rather commit suicide than permit him to marry the woman he loves, who is from a class of untouchables. The ethically and morally upright Obi eventually succumbs to the things he condemns: He takes a bribe and is arrested.

Securing the rights to stage this world premiere was the easy part for Pangea’s creative team. Through a mutual friend, the company got in touch with Achebe, a professor at Bard College in New York. Natarajan then made contact with Achebe’s agent in London.


The hard work was narrowing a sprawling, epic novel for the stage. E.G. Bailey, who adapted the book, and director Dipankar Mukherjee use 11 actors, many in a chorus, to play all the parts.

Bailey, a Liberian-born poet, playwright and performance artist, had other challenges while working on “Ease.” Shortly after he did a first draft of the play in June 1999, he returned to his homeland for the first time since his youth.

“The big danger for me was not making this my own story,” he said during a rehearsal break. “This is really a story of change and tradition. Obi went away to school, like I did. He owes something to the community. He wants to bring enlightenment, but he has too little appreciation for tradition.”

Bailey and Mukherjee brought in leaders of Twin Cities Nigerian organizations to work on accents and to talk about the play’s themes. The Pangea creative team discovered many complexities; for example, the bribery that is so pervasive in the book and in much of contemporary Africa is rooted in a benign traditional practice of gift exchange.

Bailey and Mukherjee also delved into the conflict of values that Obi embodies. Because of his English upbringing, Obi sees bribery as more of a crime than abortion. When his girlfriend — the same one his mother has forbidden him to marry — becomes pregnant, he seeks money for an abortion.

In traditional Ibo culture, to have an abortion is to undo your chi, or spirit, Bailey said. “That is the worst thing you could do, killing your soul,” he continued. “Obi cannot see that. He is a good man, full of righteous, ethical fire. And the things he wants to change will change. But not on his timetable.”

The play’s conflicts have universal applications, Mukherjee said. “We’re talking about Nigeria as much as India,” he said. “In both cases, different mini-states were forged together into a nation, and the traditional values continue to clash with the legacy of colonialism and the possibilities of the future.

“The brilliance of Achebe is that we can see our own struggles here as we try to find a progressive vision of how to live. We want to stay true to his broad vision and ours.”

What: Adapted from Chinua Achebe’s novel by E.G. Bailey. Directed by Dipankar Mukherjee.

When: Opens 7:30 p.m. today. Runs 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sun. Thru May 27.

Where: Waring Jones Theater, Playwrights’ Center, 2301 E. Franklin Av., Mpls.

Tickets: $14-$16. 612-343-3390.

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‘No Longer at Ease’ a tense, furious work

4 May 2001 at 9:00 am (Press, Shows, Theatre) (, , , )

‘No Longer at Ease’
a tense, furious work

by Rohan Preston (Star Tribune)

If you like economical and evocative theater, go see “No Longer at Ease,” Pangea World Theater’s adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s novel.

As adapted by E.G. Bailey and directed by Dipankar Mukherjee, this “Ease,” in a premiere at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, captures the big themes and epic arc of Achebe’s work but little of his wry humor.

The brisk 21⁄2-hour drama veers from haunting ritual to heady realism, mixing these realms with a wonderful, no-fuss theatricality.

Set on the eve of Nigerian independence, the action involves Obi Okonkwo, a headstrong young man who has been sent away to school in England by his Ibo people. After four years abroad, Obi (the reverse of Ibo) returns westernized and scornful of his people’s traditions. His family forbids him to marry his girlfriend, Clara, who is from a group of outcasts. Obi moves in with her instead. When she becomes pregnant, Obi takes a bribe so he can pay for an abortion. He seems no different from the corrupt officials he condemns.

The action plays out on Seitu Jones’ striking, museumlike set. It is lined with elaborate carved African artifacts and furnishings, as well as 11 mainsail-style backdrops behind which the actors retreat. Sarah Schreiber’s expert lighting transforms the space from office to nightclub to home.

In the ritualistic scenes, imaginatively staged by Mukherjee, the broad themes are more important than the individual character development at the heart of most Western drama. The show is at its best during the stylized scenes.

For example, when Clara goes to have the abortion, she meets resistance from the whole community, lined up on one side of the stage. In half-shadows, the hissing, gasping townspeople walk in slow motion, pushing out at her as if trying to stop a car with bare hands. From the other side of the stage, Clara pushes until the two sides meet — and cross — at a threshold.

Then the scene dissolves, the lights brighten and the pace returns to normal. Mukherjee’s sensitive treatment of this section is a highlight.

By contrast, the realistic scenes are more predictable, and while those involving the conflict between European colonizers and African subjects may be historically accurate, they sound stilted.

Actor James Young II plays Obi like an ornery prizefighter. He comes on at full throttle for most of the show, his passion loud and clear. Young’s bombast is somewhat moderated by the company of actors around him, including Gregory Stewart Smith, who plays Obi’s brother and a host of other roles; Ronnell Wheeler as a ritual dancer and conspirator, and Marie-Francoise Theodore, who gives a knitted-brow innocence to the underwritten role of Clara.

— Rohan Preston is at rpreston@startribune.com .

*    Who: Adapted from the Chinua Achebe novel by E.G. Bailey. Directed by Dipankar Mukherjee for Pangea World Theater.

*    Where: Playwrights’ Center, 2301 E. Franklin Av., Minneapolis

*    When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, through May 27.

*    Review: This brisk, 21⁄2-hour drama about Nigeria on the cusp of independence veers between stylized ritual and heady realism, blending these disparate realms with a wonderful, no-fuss theatricality.

*    Tickets: $14-$16. Call 612-343-3390.

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