A busy barefoot beauty6/22/2016
A woman’s naked heel, in an open auditorium, can provide thunderous punctuation. The echoing slaps of the first dancer’s feet in “Shakuntala” gets everyone’s attention at once. The performer, JoLynn Evans, petite though she is, delivers a head-snapping opener.
She could be announcing “Showtime!” — with her feet.
What follows rewards the wake-up call. A tale out of a Hindu myth first performed in Sanskrit 1,500 years ago, “Shakuntala” (emphasis on “kun”) depicts a love so powerful it travels to heaven and back. The gods must intervene to break the curse on the heroine and her king. Afloat between earth and paradise, jungle and palace, women’s gossip and fishermen’s labor, the story makes a natural for the stage.
The Gateway production emphasizes dance, of course. The company, under the direction of lifelong dancer Penny Furgerson,
has been teaching and performing a variety of international styles since 1972. In this show, the opening number is far from the only one in which the soundtrack is augmented by the players’ own busy, bare feet. On sound, Juri Battsharya and Seichellapa Mandiramoorthy keep flute and sitar from overwhelming things.
A number of times the women were the centerpieces. Such was the case when Shakuntala and her two friends were leaping about in black, lavender and white. Furgerson, herself, handled the costumes, along with the primary choreographer Sarmistha Sarkar, who also adapted the script. When the men took over, they popped with athletic energy.
Changes like that, as everyone shuttled on and off, kept the 90 minutes engaging. Co-directors Ken-Mat Martin and Sarah Hinzman have done all sorts of local theater, and their experience showed, too, in how often the ancient story can make viewers laugh. A lot of the humor bubbled up between Courtnei Caldwell and Swarupa Bakre — Shakuntala’s two besties — as their features were marvelously flexible. Odell McGhee, as the king’s counselor and oldest guy onstage, brought off a fine swagger as he kept up with the kids.
The two leads generally had to show more restraint, drawing viewers into their infatuation. Sanju Pilli, in the title role, was careful about when she turned on her incandescent smile. As king, Maximino Fernandes rushed his lines early on, but found the tempo in the crucial scene when the curse takes hold and he orders his pregnant bride out of the castle.
Some of the moment’s power was thanks to Randy Young’s set. To create the king’s chamber, he lifted the back curtain — itself an intriguing mix of jungle and garden — and revealed a row of pillars and a throne. The flecks of color and the pillows and sashes suggested what used to be called “all the riches of the Orient,” but what now has come to the Midwest. The show may seem an outlier, putting “11 different cultures onstage,” according to the director’s note. Its success, however, reveals the diversity that has found a home in Des Moines.
Overheard In The Lobby: Des Moines Performing Arts is bringing Jerry Seinfield to the Civic Center in September. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.