Within five minutes of sitting down to see “The Mistake of the Goddess” in India last year, Joseph McGrath knew he was watching something special. And that he wanted The Rogue Theatre to stage it.
“I said ‘this is a Rogue play,’” recalls McGrath, a co-founder of the theater and the director of this production, which The Rogue opens in previews tonight.
It’s done in a very storytelling manner. It’s in a traditional style with a traveling troupe that comes into town and tells the tale. The Indian style is very much like the Rogue’s — musicians on the side, and an open stage. It looked like a lot of what we’ve done.”
“The Mistake of the Goddess,” by Girish Karnad, is an old tale told in a new way.
Its roots are in an 11th-century Sanskrit story about two men in love with the same woman. They end up beheading themselves, and the goddess Kali allows the heads to be put back on, but the heads are switched. To make matters more complex, the two men are from different castes; their new heads disrupt the social order. It poses the question: who is who and why?
While the story is a traditional one, the playwright has imposed contemporary, Western-style theater on it, further underscoring the story’s duality.
“It’s a contemporary play in its storytelling style, and Karnad plucks out these traditional elements and blends them into his storytelling,” says McGrath.
The play incorporates India’s traditional theatrical elements, such as elaborate costumes, music and dance woven throughout the dialogue. “It’s been fascinating to go to school on traditional Indian theater,” says McGrath.
The story is bookended by homages to the god Ganesha, a tradition in India whenever there is a large undertaking.
The play is thick with Indian references, which McGrath says will be minimized.
“There are a lot of little things that Kanard does that an Indian audience gets right away and that we are not familiar with,” he says. “We’ve been picking through and purging the elements that won’t come across to an American audience.”
While a Western audience may not get some of the references, the story speaks beyond borders.
“There’s always the struggle of the head and the heart,” says McGrath. “The modern versus the ancient or even primal.”
The play can be interpreted on many levels: as a great myth, a comment on India’s identity as a result of Colonial rule, the question of what makes us who we are.
But in the end, says McGrath, it’s strong storytelling.
“I don’t want to leave the impression that it’s intellectual and high falutin’,” he says.
“It has the quality of children’s theater that the Rogue has always loved — an exciting simplicity to the storytelling.”