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More than a one-night stand KEVIN BERNE

A.C.T.’s ‘Indian Ink’ redefines the standing ovation by Charl e s B rou sse


n the Bay Area, standing ovations are definitely “in.” After many years of frequenting opening nights at local theaters, I’ve observed the growing tendency of local audiences to leap to their feet to register appreciation, even when the show is of average quality (or in some cases even less). And yet, as occasionally happens, if circumstances compel me to attend on a later date, such demonstrations of unearned enthusiasm are comparatively rare. So, what’s going on? The quality is presumably the same—or close to it—but the response is quite different. The answer may be that opening nights bring out the friends, relatives, board members, patrons and other supporters who are anxious to give the production a sendoff that will raise performers’ morale and impress the critics. In a small community like ours, it can easily become a tradition. Also, many first-nighters are non-paying guests of management; standing, whistling and cheering gives them a chance to repay their hosts. Ticket-buyers at subsequent performances are more circumspect. Not

Flora Crewe (Brenda Meaney) reflects on a work of art by having a personal attachment, they have to be Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji) in A.C.T.’s Indian Ink’. convinced that the experience was worth the not inconsequential price of admission. There probably are other reasons. I Always one to move back and forth in mention the ovation phenomenon because time and space, Stoppard tells two stories— it explains why I distrust opening night one inside the other. The first is really only celebrations and why the spontaneous burst a framing device. It’s 1987 of genuine enthusiasm and the Tories are in power. that followed A.C.T.’s NOW PLAYING A fussy American literary performance of Tom StopIndian Ink runs through Sunpard’s Indian Ink, when I day, Feb. 8 at the A.C.T., 415 Geary historian named Eldon Pike (A.C.T. regular Anthony St., San Francisco. Information: attended two days after its 415/749-2228, or Fusco) pays a visit to the run began, made such a suburban London home vivid impression. of Eleanor Swan (Roberta What has been described Maxwell). His mission: Having had little as a “romantic fantasy” about the final days of success with his publication of the collected the British Raj in India debuted in Guildford, poems of Swan’s sister, Flora Crewe, and England, in 1995, had its American premiere aware that the latter was reputed to have at A.C.T. in 1999 under the direction of Carey been one of the least inhibited (especially Perloff, and finally made it to New York (offon sexual matters) of the famous BloomsBroadway, again under Perloff) last fall. Now, bury Group, he now hopes to spice up a A.C.T.’s artistic director—a close friend and proposed biography with material from booster of the author’s work—has brought it letters that describe her exploits while living back to the Geary Street theater with a brilin India for most of 1930. liant new cast and an impeccable production.

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While that narrative thread continues throughout the play, Stoppard’s primary focus is on Flora, the fictional, free-spirited poetess brought to vibrant life by Brenda Meaney. From the time she arrives at the railway station in the provincial capital of Jummapur, whose versatile Indian design is beautifully captured by Neil Patel’s set, Flora is a force to be reckoned with. She explores the culture, Hinduism, art and customs. Most of all, she explores the men she meets—Indian and British—in a series of sexual dalliances that don’t add up to much. In fact, her most profound and illuminating relationship is with the painter Anish Das (a masterful performance from Pej Vahdat), who maintains a discrete distance as he guides her through the labyrinth of Indian life during their portrait session. These scenes, filled with unspoken and unfulfilled erotic tension, are the true romantic heart of Stoppard’s play. Indian Ink is not a particularly popular part of the Stoppard canon. It has been criticized for its length (almost three hours), too many issues, confusing time shifts, an overly gentle treatment of colonial racism and the indigenous caste structure. To some degree these complaints have merit. And yet, the spectators (I among them) who rose without urging at play’s end knew we had just witnessed something rare in the theater—a union of an ambitious script and performances of the highest order. That’s what standing ovations are for. Y Charles can be reached at #EXPLOREMARIN

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