Doing "The Mahabharata" is, as expected, an experience quite unlike any other. There's the time involved (the Saturday marathons at the Raleigh Studios soundstage run just over 10 hours), the expense ($90 per ticket), the music, the spectacle, the beauty, the bleachers (more on those later), the boxed dinners (ditto) and the Porta Potties.
Even with all those variables, the people who attended a recent marathon happily adjusted to the demands of the occasion. "If I had any expectations," said audience member Kim Gillingham, "they were that it would be more formal, sacred. But I'm glad it's not. It's huge but accessible, like watching the Bible."
Some, like Vicki Martin, were astonished by the work's contemporary nuances: "It's 5,000 years ago and they're talking about nuclear war."
For others, the portrait was even more intimate. "I know this story through and through; I lived with it," said Indian-born Aruna Roy. Nodded her husband, Ranjit, "It's more than I expected, a very good interpretation. It feels Indian, of course, it's been modernized a little, but the essence comes through."
Everyone, it seemed, was touched in some way. "Riveting," said Doug Goheen. "Terrifically engaging," said his wife Chuck. "Easy to follow," said Mollie Gregory. "Enthralling," said Henrietta Cosentino. "Fabulous use of space," said Melinda Ward.
There was also the occasional criticism. "Some of the acting is a little disappointing," said Martin. "I wasn't completely involved all the time--I left and returned," admitted Peter Lempert. "I wish it had been more grabbing, more theatrical." Added Robert Schrock, director of the Equity Waiver hits "Back Home" and "October 22, 4004 B.C., Saturday", "It's inevitable to compare this to 'Nicholas Nickleby,' because of the size. But there, you really felt like you were climbing inside that whole world. Here, you don't feel that (intimacy). You're more of an observer."
Exhaustion too was a factor.
"As modern audiences, we're not trained to sit through nine hours of a performance," reasoned Donald Cosentino, whose wife admitted to "waves of sleepiness" in the first part. "So this is really a challenge--for body and mind. But (director Peter) Brook's biggest problem is that 'The Mahabharata' is a philosophical work, and plays don't work unless there's action."
Said Martin, "Having seen Le Theatre du Soleil a couple of years ago, I guess we were expecting some of that kind of action and energy and spectacle. But this is very different--an endless, eternal narrative. So you just have to get used to that rhythm." Added Tony Burton about the show's acoustics: "People are used to watching television at home and turning up the volume (when they can't hear). In motion pictures and television, you can just sit back and it takes you in. In theater, you have to be present for the exchange."
Aesthetic quibbles aside, the consensus was that the padded bleachers were OK; shifting and squirming only became noticeable later in the day. (When, at 10:01 p.m., a character on stage plaintively announced, "Father, I'm very tired," there was a ripple of empathic chuckles in the audience.)
The portable restrooms, however, were a whole other matter. "Not too bad," was the most upbeat comment recorded. "Huge lines," sighed Ernie Reyes. "Horrible--the one I used was tilting," groused Martin. "A problem," said diplomatic Ranjit Roy. (His wife was equally unamused by the long lines for prepaid box dinners.)
Food, of course, was the second-favorite attraction of the day. On this day, most people chose the box dinners, which offered a choice of curried chicken, stuffed veal, chicken kabobs or salad nicoise . (Except for the latter, the entrees received high marks.)
Many toted their own food. The vegetarian Goheens brought avocado sandwiches from home; Kim Gillingham kept it light with a bag of fruit and a bottle of Evian water; Schrock dined on home-baked chicken with rosemary and garlic.
The Cosentinos had oysters, stuffed grape leaves, cheese and French bread from their favorite eatery; Martin stocked up at Trader Joe's. On the ambitious end, Sherry Modell assembled an elegant pasta salad, while Toni Gabriel came with lamb and beef appetizers, tandoori chicken and cold curried rice salad.
Wine flowed freely. Spirits were sunny; a feeling of community pervaded. Strangers schmoozed like old friends by dinner, old friends--like the Nathansons and the Carrolls--took refuge from the rain with an in-car picnic. Misplaced items (like a reporter's tape recorder) were dutifully returned to Lost and Found, as were all the items which routinely fell through the bleacher steps during the day.
Lainie Kazan, who watched her purse take that dive early on, didn't fare quite so well. She got the purse back all right, but by the time the singer/actress returned to her seat, "I'd lost the story completely. I'm still trying to figure it out."