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Reviewed by:
  • The Clay Cart
  • Eleanor Owicki
The Clay Cart. By Śūdraka. Directed by Bill Rauch. Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Angus Bowmer Theatre, Ashland. 15 August 2008.

When Bill Rauch, a founding member of the Cornerstone Theatre Company, took over the artistic directorship of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2007, he instituted (not surprisingly) several changes in order to strengthen the festival’s connection with local communities. For many seasons, evening performances had been preceded by free Green Shows performed by a company of dancers and musicians on the open space near the theatres. Rauch reinvented this tradition for the 2008 season by inviting many groups from surrounding communities to perform, thus creating a diverse showcase of artists working in many forms. When I attended the festival, I saw a vaudeville-inspired performance as well as an improv group.

This emphasis on community was also central to Rauch’s production of The Clay Cart, the Sanskrit classic thought to have been written between the second and fifth centuries by the monarch Śūdraka. Although the plot revolves around a love affair between the noble but poor Chārudatta (Christofer Jean) and the beautiful courtesan Vasantasenā (Miram Laube), these two characters do not exist in isolation. They prove their goodness by the generosity they show to the play’s many secondary characters, including a poor worker, a thief, and a gambler. Through this large ensemble, the spatial arrangement and design elements, and his choices with both actors and text, Rauch stressed the play’s themes of compassion, community, and shared responsibility.

The production began with a benediction: cast members entered individually, touched the ground in a moment of silent reverence, and stepped onto the circular platform that filled most of the stage. They then invoked the protection of several Hindu gods for themselves and the audience. The houselights remained up for this moment, and the customary sound cue asking the audience to silence their cell phones was held until it was over. By separating the benediction from the play’s action, Rauch encouraged the audience to view it as a moment of sincere well-wishing, thus establishing a tone of compassion that would continue throughout the performance.

Next, ensemble members not required for the first scene arranged themselves casually on pillows around the back of the platform to watch the play. Although they remained focused on the action, they also were relaxed, laughing and quietly commenting to one another. Because of the set design and the architecture of the theatre, these “spectactors” and the audience together created a complete circle around the central platform. Similarly, the many ornate lamps hanging over both the stage and the auditorium blurred the distinction between the spectators’ and the performers’ space. These design choices, as well as several moments when characters directed comments to specific audience members, encouraged us to consider ourselves as part of the community the actors had created onstage.

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Christofer Jean (Chārudatta) and Miriam A. Laube (Vasantasenā) in The Clay Cart. Photo: David Cooper.

Śūdraka’s play is fairly ambivalent about India’s caste system. Several times, individual characters make comments that question the importance of birth in determining a person’s inherent moral value. In the second act, Chārudatta is accused of murdering Vasantasenā (in reality, the king’s wicked brother-in-law Samsthānaka strangled her and left her for dead). At Chārudatta’s trial, the judge dismisses Samsthānaka’s attempts to bully him, asking: “[W]hy boast of family? It is character that counts here” (52). Although the play admits that the caste [End Page 120] system may not work in individual cases, Śūdraka does not ask for it to be dismantled. The untouchable executioners who show Chārudatta kindness are rewarded by becoming leaders of their caste, not by being freed from its stigma.

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Tyrone Wilson (Libertine), Miriam A. Laube (Vasantasenā), and Eileen DeSandre (Madanikā) in The Clay Cart. Photo: David Cooper.

Rauch’s use of the ensemble helped to offer a more complete critique of this system. During the benediction, before the action of the play began and characters were introduced...


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pp. 120-122
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