Sunday, January 19, 2014

Prototype Festival - Thumbprint - 01/18/14

Composer: Kamala Sankaram
Conductor: Steven Osgood
Director: Rachel Dickstein
Mukhtar: Kamala Sankaram
Mother, Prime Minister, Villager, Reporter: Theodora Hanslowe
Father, Judge, Villager, Reporter, Elder: Steve Gokool
Faiz, Police Chief, Villager, Reporter, Elder: Manu Narayan
Reporter, Abdul, Shakur, Imam, Reporter, Elder: Kannan Vasudevan
Annu, Young Woman, Villager, Reporter: Leela Subramaniam

When earlier this week my friend Dawn asked me if I'd be interested in attending a depressing opera on Saturday night at Baruch College, she immediately piqued my interest. After I had heard that it was based on a true, inspiring story about universal human issues in an exotic land that, when all was said and done, concluded with a happy ending, I was sold. And apparently I was not the only one because the show was completely sold-out and we had to content ourselves with standing-room tickets. But hey, whatever it takes to support the performing arts and human rights, right?
The title Thumbprint describes the only way a young illiterate woman could file a complaint after being gang-raped by four men of another tribe as payback for her little brother's alleged "honor crime". In a place and time (Pakistan in 2002) where the expected course of action would then be for the disgraced victim to kill herself in order to wipe out the dishonor she had brought to her family, Mukhtar eventually decided against all odds to stand up for herself and fight in the court of law... and won.

The main character, Mukhtar, was convincingly impersonated by emerging Indian-American composer Kamala Sankaram, who had also written the score. As one of the main instigators of the project, she displayed an attractive, flexible, if not particularly powerful, voice, decent acting skills, and a genuine interest in conveying the young woman's exceptional progression from innocent country girl to global human rights activist.
The other singers proved to be generally reliable, although their playing various characters could lead to confusion if attention was not properly paid. The two performers who resolutely rose above the fray were Theodora Hanslowe, as the strong, loving and supporting mother, and Manu Narayan, who made a delectable villain caught up in his ancient chauvinistic traditions.
The intriguing blend of Western and Hindustani influences was performed by a small but proficient orchestra of six musicians, who were capably conducted by Steven Osgood. While the musical and vocal base had an essentially conventional operatic structure, including some typically lyrical lines, one could also find plenty of other elements, such as Pakistani and Indian devotional chants, and an unstoppable driving pulse worthy of a thriller. Some of it was overly repetitive, some of it did not sound fully thought out, but the often harmonically rich, occasionally fascinating, score nevertheless efficiently supported the plot for the most part.
The set had very little in terms of décor, but that was never really a problem, clearly demonstrating, if need be, that a lot can be accomplished with less. As for the two main scenes - Mukhtar's rape and her eventual transformation - they worked with various degrees of success. The ingenious use of light and shadows, frozen poses, fearful gasps of breath, as well as the harsh slashing of bags of rice at the back of the stage, during the relatively short rape scene had a downright harrowing effect. On the other hand, Mukhtar's shift from suicidal victim to entitled citizen could have been carried out without the background screen turning bright red and the surging music regretfully covering her (as far as we could tell) appealing singing. This was both too much and not enough.
The story ends well on the stage. Mukhtar wins her case and opens a school to help down-trodden women in her community. While real life is slightly less rosy - despite, and because of, her remarkable subsequent achievements in her village and throughout the world, the men that had been sentenced were all acquitted on appeal and she regularly receives death threats - what the audience will likely remember is the empowering Urdu handwriting of her name on the projection screen, triumphantly making her thumbprint obsolete once and for all.

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