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Theater Mon Aug 17 2015

A Perfect Ganesh @ Athenaeum Theatre: a Quest for Peace

A Perfect Ganesh

In this production about two well-off middle aged ladies from Connecticut who travel to India to find some healing for the tragedies that have befallen them, there is a surprising amount of humor. Margaret, played by Elaine Carlson, and Kitty, played by Jeanne Affelder, are unknowingly protected in their travels by the beloved elephant-headed Indian god, Ganesha, played by Michael Harris. The handful of other characters in the play are all played by Phil Higgins.

Phil Higgins at various times is a Dutch stranger, the husband to both of the main characters, the dead sons of both of the main characters, a puppeteer, a young man dying of aids, a Bronx accented flight attendant, a leper, a sassy hotel porter and a stressed out airline employee. He switches between the roles with ease, sometimes playing it comical, sometimes moving. Although it is impressive to see the range of characters Higgins is capable of, his youth sometimes worked against him, making him seem slightly off for the role, as in the first scene where he played a distant wealthy pipe smoking husband. Nevertheless, he provides some much-needed levity throughout the show.

Michael Harris is physically charming in the role of Ganesha, wearing a clever headdress and extra set of arms and moving his body in the manner we often see Indian gods posing in in paintings. He too plays many roles in the play, all while wearing his elephant headdress and arms, indicating that Ganesha was acting through those characters with his grace. To name a few of his personas, Ganesha is a Japanese man and a Japanese woman, a hotel manager, a hotel maid, a train attendant, a storyteller and a tour guide. He often acts generously towards the main characters--especially when they are in psychological distress, bonding with them in their sorrows and through small acts of kindness, like a kiss, an embrace or a gift, acts that are indicated by a bell dinging offstage. Michael captures the grandeur and the essence of a god powerfully, but his command of the accents required for the role is not perfect, making his words sometimes difficult to follow. This is an unfortunate hitch in an otherwise perfect role for him. Perhaps the role of Ganesha would have benefited instead from a British colonial accent or no accent at all.

Kitty and Margaret, longtime friends who had shared many country club vacations, were put to the test in India, where they go through the motions of tourists seeing the sights and never really fathoming what they see, because by their own admission, they feel superior to the people there. Elaine Carlson does wonders in the role of Margaret, making a fearful, cantankerous, distrustful, and deeply prejudiced woman somehow emerge as strong, loyal, forbearing and kind in an unassuming way. Jeannie Affelder transforms her character Kitty as well, from a vacuously cheerful soul who masks her pain and shame with relentless optimism, to a frail soul, struggling with her place in society now that her children are grown. Their dynamic together creates the tense sort of friction that makes for good comedy and small epiphanies and reminds us that every human has redeemable qualities.

A Perfect Ganesh was a Pulitzer nominee, written in 1993 by the playwright Terrence McNally. He openly toys with issues of white privilege, prejudice, homophobia, racism and sexism in unapologetic ways that seem dated and not politically correct today, yet strangely ignores the whole gamut of issues based around class and poverty in Indian culture. For example, although Kitty clearly longs to purge herself of the sin of not accepting her deceased homosexual son by immersing herself in a strange new culture, she seems incapable of breaking out of the role of tourist, observer and consumer. She views the landscape from afar and above, having only chance interactions with other tourists and Indians who act as servants. Her longing is so intense as to drive her close to kissing a leper on two occasions, the type of purging of her Catholic guilt that she claims to harbor since girlhood. As Kitty and Margaret quibble and skim their way across the landscapes, never truly embedding themselves in the culture, Kitty's dissatisfaction evolves to a quest to find the perfect Ganesha statue as the pair collects facts about Ganesha--she makes the mistake of confusing the object for the essence, the material for the spiritual.

Ganesha as a symbol in this story is a powerful one, as he is a god with many attributes and powers, among them success, destruction of evils and obstacles. He is considered the god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth. In A Perfect Ganesh, Kitty and Margaret seek different things, but absolution from the pain of loss and failure is something they share along with their wealth. They do transform in minor ways--becoming more aware of their shortcomings, their losses, and the power of their friendship tested by shared trials, but it isn't until they return to their homes that the perfect Ganesha arrives in the form of a postcard reminding them of a loving connection made between humans who have suffered.

A Perfect Ganesh is not a perfect play, but it doesn't strive to be. Instead it strives to show the ugly realities of class while at the same time reassuring us that all humans struggle with big issues like loss, prejudice, trust, forgiveness, and the search for peace. Playwright McNally resisted the temptation westerners have to idolize Eastern philosophy and culture as a means for transformation, and at the same time he played with the idea that grace and change are possible on a small and very human scale, which ultimately is what makes this production worth seeing.

A Perfect Ganesh is presented by Eclipse Theatre Company at the Athenaeum Theatre, Studio Three, located at 2936 N. Southport Ave until August 23. There are just 4 more shows, August 20, 21 and 22 at 7:30pm, and August 23 at 2pm. Tickets are $30 for adults, $20 for seniors and students.


 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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