Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Divided Together: Hayavadana is a theatrical event of pluralities. As the title suggests, Hayavadana explores themes of division and reconciliation, and the Department of Theater’s Production Ensemble presents a multicultural, multisensory, and multilayered staging that engages the audience in a synergetic theatrical experience.
Written in 1971, Hayavadana remains the landmark work of acclaimed Indian playwright Girish Karnad. Director Erin Mee, Assistant Professor of Acting in the Theater Department, envisions the play as a surreal love story underscored by urgent, driving questions of postcolonial politics and identity. Karnad’s play concerns Padmini, a young woman who falls in love with the robust Kapila, her ascetic husband Devadatta’s best friend. When Padmini switches her paramours’ heads in a tragicomic accident, Karnad confronts the audience with a dilemma: which man is Padmini’s husband, the one bearing his head, or the one possessing his body? Although Padmini presumes she has created the perfect man, the many complex manifestations of the head-body divide subvert her idyll. Both Devadatta and Kapila contend with feelings of incompleteness. Lamenting the fact that his head now governs Devadatta’s body, Kapila remarks to Padmini, “The moment it came to me, a war started between us.”
Mee asserts that Karnad’s intentions were entirely political in his exploration of this dichotomy. Colonial India received its independence from Britain in 1947, and in the ensuing decades a nationalistic struggle for cultural autonomy accompanied the quest for political sovereignty. Artists such as Karnad sought to overcome British cultural hegemony, and Mee explains, “the head-body divide is also about the colonization of the mind. Colonialism imposes a certain way of thinking, and this piece expresses the challenges encountered by colonial subjects: their bodies belong to one culture and their heads have been trained to think by another culture.” Mee adds that Karnad’s work represents a postcolonial vision of theater that transcends imperial binaries to create an alternative version of modern performance.
Production Ensemble’s Hayavadana combines aspects of Western theater with elements of traditional Indian theater to produce a hybridized piece. Rebecca Contreras ’13 remarks that the process was one of “completely immersing ourselves in a different culture.” All of the performances are movement-based, and each character possesses his or her own distinct style of movement. The actors had the opportunity to design their own choreography and movement, ensuring that they operated not only as interpretive artists but also as creative artists. “It’s the most physical production I’ve ever been in,” says Katie Becker ’10. “We try to involve our whole bodies in what we’re doing instead of fully remaining in the realistic realm of motion.” The performers move in and out of several different styles of acting, evoking a theatrical universe that is neither fully Western nor fully Indian. Assistant Professor Laila Swanson’s sets also reinforce plurality through the presence of both classical Western proscenium arches and Indian handheld curtains.
Dan Perelstein’s original music and James Murphy’s lighting offer a rich auditory and visual ambiance that further enhances character and setting. “The music is an integral part of the play,” Becker elaborates. “It expresses what the characters can’t say.” Similarly, the lighting facilitates onstage transformations, and projections and shadows heighten the action in a manner consistent with the production’s stylized approach.
Hayavadana features original text referring to life at Swarthmore – an additional act of hybridization that personalizes the play for the particular audience in attendance. Mee hopes the audience will be inspired by the play’s interdisciplinary approach and participate alongside the creative artists in the realization of Karnad’s theatrical vision. Hayavadana utilizes only minimal props and furniture, so as the actors provide words and movement and the production provides light and sound, the audience must imagine scenery in a three-way collaboration that evokes each moment from multiple perspectives.
This multiplicity of perspectives renders Hayavadana both familiar and entirely new. By integrating disparate theatrical legacies, Production Ensemble has crafted a unique show that cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts.
Divided Together: Hayavadana plays in the Lang Performing Arts Center’s Frear Ensemble Theater Friday March 26 at 8p.m., Saturday March 27 at 3p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday March 28 at 3 p.m. Members of the deaf community are invited especially to the Saturday matinee performance, which will be interpreted in American Sign Language by Doreen DeLuca and colleague. The production is directed by Assistant Professor Erin Mee, with sets and costumes designed by Assistant Professor Laila Swanson, lighting designed by James Murphy, and original music composed by Dan Perelstein ’09. The Ensemble features Katie Becker ’10, Rebecca Contreras ’13, Melissa Cruz ’10, Nia Gipson ’10, Vianca Masucci ’13, Regina Noto ’12, Cathy Park ’13, Watufani Poe ’13, and John Simon ’12.