Review of MuZeum at Yale Cabaret This week the Yale Cabaret has been transformed into a stage for a MuZeum, a display of exhibits adapted, translated, and directed by Ankur Sharma who also acts as Singer 1, a benignly accommodating Master of Ceremonies for this pageant of dance, music, song . . . and harrowing tales of the abuse and mistreatment of women, primarily in India, from ancient tales and myths up to violent news stories of our times.
The cumulative effect of the play’s many vivid vignettes is a question of accountability that’s never answered. Who and what may be blamed? There seem to be no extenuating circumstances, no way to make sense of the variety of abuses, except the obvious point: women are not perceived as the equals of males, and, to some extent, not even of the same “species.” For men, any number of hardships can be imposed upon women simply by virtue of the fact that females aren't males.
And the Cab’s production is quite willing to beguile us with lovely costumes (Grier Coleman), a distinctive, eye-enticing set (Chika Shimizu and Izmir Ickbal) with rich projections (Davonte Johnson), and evocative choreography (Anita Shastri) to create a space of aesthetic contemplation. Sharma and company then place before us the very qualities of beauty and poise that, in the stories, become the only purpose for women whose looks make their fates, as in the story of the homely woman punished cruelly for having a crush on a god, or in the story of girls—in modern India—who reject suitors and are disfigured or killed in retaliation. Cruelty, we might think, is a defining characteristic of barbarism. But we also know, in a world that condones torture for political purposes, that cruelty is considered a weapon against “the other,” “the enemy,” and MuZeum would have us contemplate the extent to which women—by virtue of being “other” in a male-dominated culture—are liable to cruelty as a form of male “justice.” We might wonder how such a culture lives with itself.
Perhaps the most dramatically intriguing aspect of the show is how the storytelling alters with its setting. When the stories are primarily mythic folktales, the fresh perspective of having female characters tell their stories using a modern sensibility sustains the satiric dimension of the play. These canny, straight-forward tellers expose the double standards and the traditional conceptions of the sexes that underlay the ancient tales. But, at the same time, the modern perspective permits a certain naïvete about what the source tales intend. In other words, the fact that heroes are always good-looking isn’t meant to imply that all good-looking people are heroic, but it may lead to the dangerous notion that only good-looking people can be, thus making those less presentable among us feel worthless. To trust the “logic” of such stories as though they are teaching about “real life” leads either to absurdity or tragedy. Whereas in the latter day stories—such as the story of an acid attack victim played with heart-breaking intensity by Tiffany Mack—MuZeum gives an almost emblematic status to random acts of violence. The implication seems to be that all such events, regardless of their circumstances, can be explained by one universalist assumption about women.
Then again, there are also aspects of the play particular to Indian life, as for instance a tale that includes the notion of the “untouchable” caste. For there we find not only the blindness to common human value often found in mythic tales of godlike beings and royalty, but a real world occasion of rigid hierarchy and of otherness that cannot be surmounted.
To help our imaginative participation, MuZeum maintains a certain quizzical tone. As Singer 1, Sharma enacts some of the confusion about what is permissible in assessing female contributions, with the other musicians and singers chiding their leader for not being enlightened enough. As participants on stage who also act as audience, the singers help to mediate the action so that the violence in the show remains stylized and at a remove. Otherwise, the emotions aroused by the exhibit of victims might be overwhelming.
In the end, MuZeum walks a fine line, evoking atrocity as something that can be enacted as theater, attempting to represent the unrepresentable both as a didactic tactic and as a call for change through awareness and a burden of generalized culpability. When one of the victims in the roll call at the end locates herself in Milford, CT, then it’s all too clear that the events the play depicts are not restricted to far off cultures with ancient traditions of chauvinism. The culture we may feel estranged from, then, is very much our own.
MuZeum Adapted, translated, and directed by Ankur Sharma
Cast: Tiffany Mack, Lynda Paul, Haydee Antunano, Elizabeth Dinkova, Ankur Sharma, Chris Ross-Evart, Supriya Kulkarni, Noreen Reza, Shreyas Ravishankar, Kartik Srivastava
Choreographer: Anita Shastri; Dramaturg: Maria Ines Marques; Set Design: Chika Shimizu, Izmir Ickbal; Costume Design: Grier Coleman; Lighting Design: Joey Moro; Sound Design: Tyler Kieffer; Sound Mixing: Ian Williams; Projection Design: Davonte Johnson; Associate Projection Design: Elizabeth Mak; Stage Manager: Emily DeNardo; Technical Director; Tom Harper, Ross Rundell; Production Manager: Lee O’Reilly; Producer: Anita Shastri
Yale Cabaret November 13-15, 2014