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Stoppard's "Indian Ink" In San Francisco

Review of "Indian Ink" by Tom Stoppard in San Francisco.

As with most of Tom Stoppard's plays, to ask what Indian Ink is about is to ask a loaded question. Stoppard tackles a variety of themes and issues in his latest play to reach these shores. Set in India of 1930 and the India and England of the 1980s, Indian Ink teems with fascinating ideas and characters--revolving around an English woman's visit to the subcontinent during the waning years of the British Empire's dominance.

Of course, Stoppard doesn't shy away from grappling with the British attitude toward India and its own diminishing empire, but he also weaves in threads of other topics such as the Indian art concept of Rasa, which one of the characters explains as "what you must feel when you see a painting or hear music; it is the emotion which the artist must arouse in you." And he does it with the dexterity and sophistication that has made him one of today's top playwrights.

In presenting the American premiere of Indian Ink, American Conservatory Theatre assembled a strong, starry cast and a lush production incorporating elements of traditional Indian art in the drops and color palate. Lor Arcenas's set designs created a fluid, airy atmosphere allowing for rapid shifts in locale and time as Stoppard's play moves with cinematic rapidity between scenes and settings.

Director Carey Perloff assembled an impressive cast with all the principals well suited to their roles--and gave them a supportive framework within which to flesh out Stoppard's richly drawn characterization.

To the central role of Flora Crewe, the young Englishwoman who visits India, Susan Gibney brought an element of ironic self-observation that was appropriate and endearing. Crewe serves as both the catalyst for Stoppard's exploration of the cultural differences existing in India at the time and as narrator of her own story to some extent. Gibney handled the dual duties without noticeable gear shifts for a seamless, well integrated performance.

The production also stars Jean Stapleton as Eleanor Swan, Flora's sister. As the three hour play progressed, there were times when Stapleton allowed the pacing of her scenes to flag. But Stapleton is a master of comic delivery and brought out the humor and wit of Stoppard's language without sacrificing character.

Art Malik gave the role of Nirad Das an understated gracious quality that quietly underlined the cultural differences between Nirad and Flora. His sensitively nuanced performance held its own against the more extroverted performances by Gibney and Stapleton.

The large cast also included Ken Grantham's very British, blustering Eldon Pike, Firdous Bamji's refreshing Anish Das, and David Conrad's dashing, stalwart David Durance.

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