What can you say about a Terrence McNally play? You know before you enter the theater that he’s waiting to spring a surprise on you. But truthfully … this time, I didn’t think it would happen.
The story is about “two middle-aged ladies who travel to India.” OK … that doesn’t sound very exciting. But then again, I have friends who travelled to India and were so traumatized by the experience that they still can’t talk about what happened to them there. So was this play going to be about something like tourist muggings or pickpockets? Not everybody’s cup of oolong!
I got to Coachella Valley Repertory early for the Wednesday preview (the folks there graciously agreed to let us review the first preview show so we could get this piece into the February print edition); I wanted to study the program. Inserted between the pages was a drawing of Ganesh or Ganesha (either is acceptable—I looked it up) with a microscopic-print explanation of the “symbolism of Ganesha.” It’s worth reading; it describes everything from his trident to his fruit basket to his busted tusk. During this preshow, the audience is treated to an endless earful of sitar music, which will either completely jangle your nerves or transport you off to imaginary India.
The set is basic East Indian. The characters are transported from one venue to another by portaging bits and props that symbolically change the locales between scenes. The lights come up on the Elephant God Ganesha himself, half-naked and wearing an elaborate elephant head … which, alas, creates a muffling effect. The actor, Mueen Jahan, enunciates carefully and speaks as loudly and clearly as he can, but the trunk cuts his vocal projection drastically, and imparts a hollow sound. It’s a conundrum: How do you design a mask of an elephant, trunk and all, but not cover the mouth of the actor behind it? This problem resonated through the whole play, as the actor switched from role to role, wearing the elephant mask throughout. It brings us to a question for our brave director, Ron Celona: Did Jahan need to continue wearing the mask even when he wasn’t playing Ganesh? If playwright McNally demanded it, then Celona’s off the hook. Otherwise, couldn’t Jahan remove the mask while playing those other parts, as well as changing his costume, dialect and vocal quality, as he does?
Sean Galuszka plays so many roles that we lost count. We see him switch effortlessly from a gay flight attendant to an Untouchable Indian beggar to a Dutch tourist to a blood-spattered accident victim/ghost to a suave ballroom dancer, and on and on. He owns each role beautifully, and gets to show off his repertoire of voices, accents and looks. This is a superb opportunity for any actor to strut his stuff, and Galuszka, the only non-Equity cast member, gobbles it up; it’s delightful to see the actor’s craft on display.
Then we meet the ladies. Margaret, with her amazing red hair and fine features, is played by Sharon Sharth. She appears at the airport at the beginning of the show, snarking and whining and trying to assert herself. We get to watch her grow in this play (playwrights call it “arc,” the loveliest word) as she reveals bits and pieces of her past, and we slowly begin to understand the backstories that made her the way she is—but she starts out as a control freak and your textbook American tourist from hell. Why?
Katherine, or Kitty, is played by Kathleen M. Darcy, a gentle brunette. She brings too much luggage, tries to ingratiate herself in India by using her few words of Spanish (implying that all foreign countries are basically just one Non-United States), and generally drives Margaret crazy. Yet she is the one who eventually launches the quest for “the perfect Ganesh,” and as we learn about the other side of her seemingly golden life, we grow in respect and sympathy for her. Arc, here, too.
The crucially important thing to remember is this: A Perfect Ganesh is set in 1992. Think about it. Where were you; what were you doing; what was happening then? That’s the whole key to this play. It was pre-political correctness, so it was open-season on minorities in some places. AIDS was stalking us. Life was dangerously different. That’s how McNally gets us: The shock of the contrast to today’s life.
Oh, sure, there are laughs in the script—McNally loves to be downright silly sometimes—but the universal themes that emerge are the real stars of this work. Meanwhile, the actors are so hard-working! These lines are bears. The writing is very cerebral, and the audiences will respond to the ideas rather than the emotion. Don’t look for a lot of action, if that’s your cup of Darjeeling.
On this preview night, there were stumbles; for example, a phone rang after being picked up, and a picture came down, but that’ll be instantly fixed by the time the show emerges from previews.
Once again, Terrence McNally sets out to surprise us, to make us remember, to think. That is the real reason for the play, whether or not that’s your cup of chai.
And, as always, he succeeds, as does CV Rep.
A Perfect Ganesh is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9; at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. $40 regular; $35 preview on Thursday, Jan. 23; $50 opening night on Friday, Jan. 24. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.