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Poetic Injustice

The Rep's Indian Ink

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The Missouri Repertory Theatre's production of Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink explores two periods in the relationship between England and India: imperialism and exotica. As directed by Risa Brainin and set-designed by Nayna Ramey, the stories are both onstage at the same time. The poet is Flora Crewe (Mary Beth Fisher), soaking up ambience and inspiration in a modest bungalow in 1930. Stage right, events are set in 1980. Flora's elderly sister, Eleanor (Pauline Flanagan), is allowing an academic (Larry Paulsen) a peek inside a series of letters Flora sent to the U.K. during her Indian period. Flora is posthumously famous now -- as famous as poets can be -- so everyone's interested in her.

Though mostly waited on hand and foot by the locals, Flora establishes a more equal partnership with Nirad Das (Samrat Chakrabarti), a young painter and Anglophile. To Das, Flora is like a perfect fetish doll -- so very British and quite vulnerable to his charms. By drawing her, and drawing her out, perhaps he's tipping the balance. Her letters subsequently become infused with wistful mystery; there was something going on between them, but to what degree and for whose reward?

Brainin's direction is taut but confounding; it certainly serves the text, but there's not much energy. For much of the first act, for example, the actors seem glued to their chairs. Fisher and Chakrabarti have decent chemistry, and Flanagan nicely embodies Eleanor's status as the tart bird who holds the keys to the kingdom; she's basking in the attention of someone else's efforts.

Devon Painter's costumes are true to both the periods and the weather; one senses that the characters in India wear what they have to -- and sometimes less -- to withstand the saunalike days and misty nights. (It's no coincidence that Flora is working on a poem called "Heat.") Tom Mardikes' sound design makes some tricky maneuvers and sets the natural environs of the 1930s scenes early on with muted birdcalls.

Design excellence can do a lot for a play, but it can't always rescue one. To give some idea of the play's torpor, the most exciting moment arrives with the release of a backdrop. It comes when the academic arrives at Flora's old haunts and is an eye-pleasing combination of Bollywood posters and the canvases of contemporary artist James Rosenquist. It pops like nothing else on or near the stage.

Still, some of the Rep's opening-night audience responded to Stoppard's wit. Perhaps there was a British-cum-Indian poetry study group seated at the front of the house. Farther back there was much silence -- and at intermission, talk of various methods folks were employing to stay awake. It serves a purpose, but one wonders how many people found the rasa (which the program defines as "a precept of Indian art theory" that "stresses the emotional response of the viewer to a work of art"). Indian Ink, like the wildly overpraised, Tony-winning The Invention of Love five years ago, is dry ice.


Postscript: High school thespians and budding drama critics across the metro are about to bask in some major spotlights with the Blue Star Awards and the Cappies.

Presented by Starlight and Blue Cross and Blue Shield at the theater in Swope Park, the Blue Star Awards recognize youth from seventeen schools for their work in musical theater this past year. (Dramas and comedies will be added to the slate in 2004.) The nominees were named by a panel of three anonymous judges who attended each school's eligible musical.

Outstanding Production nominees include Bishop Ward's Grease, Olathe South's The Pirates of Penzance, Pembroke Hill's Godspell, Shawnee Mission East's Little Shop of Horrors and Truman's Anything Goes. The categories are both familiar -- choreography, costumes and acting nods in lead and supporting roles -- and a little quirkier, like character actor and lobby display.

Among the acting nominees is Bishop Ward senior Claire Gerkovich, who played lace-to-leather Sandy in the Kansas City, Kansas, school's production of Grease this spring. She's competing for Best Actress with Kaitlyn Davidson, who played Sandy at Blue Valley High School (which would be like Nicole Kidman's Virginia Woolf competing against a Woolf by Julianne Moore), and three other female leads. "This is my first year in drama, and I'm very excited," Gerkovich says. "It's about time they recognized the arts instead of football and basketball."

The Blue Star Awards are at Starlight Theater on May 21; for more information, call 816-363-7827.

The Cappies reward students for drama criticism. The students come from ten schools, mostly in the southern suburbs on the Missouri side. Their reviews appear in papers like The Jackson County Advocate and the neighborhood sections of The Kansas City Star. The program's steering committee chair, Beth Bloom Ocheskey, says the Cappies organization (which started in Washington, D.C.) will add nine schools this fall. Its awards event is June 1 on the Missouri Rep's home turf, the Helen F. Spencer Theatre, at 7 p.m. For more information, call 816-454-4566.

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