With Under the Shadow of Wings, Ambassador Theater has staged a double bill of dramatic visions so vivid and absorbing they feel almost like lucid dreams. Springing from the minds of two Nobel Laureates, Karna and Kunti and Death of Tintagiles whisk the audience to a moonlit Indian plain and a cursed European village, respectively, where characters struggle for self determination and survival on the hazy edges of reality.
Under the Shadow of Wings represents Ambassador’s celebration of Indian and Belgian cultures, coinciding with the 150th birthday of Indian Renaissance man Rabindranath Tagore and the 100th anniversary of Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck. These two cultural luminaries were renowned for their dramatic and literary contributions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, receiving two Nobel prizes, two knighthoods, and heaps of praise from critics and scholars worldwide. Director David Willinger and his team have crafted a passionate rendering of two important works emblematic of each man’s style and philosophy.
Tagore’s Karna and Kunti follows a young Indian chieftain visited by his birth mother on the eve of a great battle, in an effort to convince him to call off his brazen attack. Death of Tintagiles details the valiant struggle of a desperate group of villagers against the insidious plans of an ancient, powerful enemy. While the two share few cosmetic details, they overlap in their characters’ efforts to throw off the yolk of destiny. While both works wind down dreary paths, their tone is ultimately hopeful, celebrating courage in the face of near insurmountable odds.
The cast deserves much credit for wringing compelling performances from a script that suffers from some awkward pacing and strange phrasing, most likely caused by the linguistic gulf between English and each text’s original tongue. Tagore’s parable of resentment and forgiveness on the eve of war contains rich dramatic material, which the two actors exploit to the best of their ability during its short twenty minute runtime. Gavin Whitt puts forth a complex turn as the stoic, conflicted Karna, a young chieftain at war with both his enemies and his own desires. As Karna’s birth mother Kunti, Meera Narasimhan exhibits commendable emotional range as she confronts the consequences of abandoning her infant son many years ago.
Maeterlinck’s Death of Tintagiles centers upon a much bleaker landscape, wherein the cursed inhabitants exhibit a mixture of mania and melancholy that seems to spill over the stage and fill the entire theater. At only 12 years old, Misha Ryjik shows great promise with a surprisingly mature rendition of the tragic title character. He serves as the emotional center of the show, and he holds the small band together with a calm wisdom wrapped in childlike innocence. As sympathetic sister Bellangere and old schoolmaster Aglovale, Paula Rich and Rob Weinzimer make the most of their short stage time, battling the hanging despair with brief flashes of hope and optimism. Mary Suib, Gavin Whitt, and Meera Narasimhan add welcome levity to the production with comically overzealous portrayals of the queen’s incompetent servants.
The real focus of the evening is the wild, exhausting performance delivered by Hanna Bondarewska. As Tintagiles’ sister Ygraine, she is a whirling dervish of emotion, fighting valiantly against the encroaching forces of darkness in order to protect her brother. In the production’s most dramatic scene, she nearly scratches and claws her way through a giant steel door to save the boy from the queen’s clutches; such is the commitment and energy Bondarewska has invested in her portrayal.
Willinger’s vision would be sunk without the excellent audiovisual design. David Crandall’s score, sound effects, and visual flourishes of create just the right mix of the ancient and timeless for Karna and Kunti and lend an oppressively creepy atmosphere to the tale of Tintagiles. The effects employed as Ygraine runs frantically through the castle tottering on the brink of madness left me wide eyed with their mad, perhaps unintended genius. Caridel Cruz’s costumes, in particular the gorgeous outfits worn by Karna and Kunti, are stars unto themselves, while the minimalistic, carefully-conceived lighting and set design of Marianne Meadows and Andrzej Pinkowski flesh out the impressive tableau.
Under the Shadow of Wings is a truly unique night of theater. While it occasionally suffers from a meandering plot and an overabundance of melodrama, Bondarewska’s gutsy performance and the arresting sights and sounds accompanying the action carry the day.
I, for one, had to collect my bearings after experiencing the dizzying blend of traditional morality play, esoteric performance art, and delirious monologue. In a landscape of familiar dramatic tropes, it’s refreshing to be occasionally thrown for a loop.
Under the Shadow of Wings:
Karna and Kunti by Rabindranath Tagore
Death of Tintagiles by Maurice Maeterlinck
Directed/Translated by David Willinger
Produced by Ambassador Theater
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Running time: 1 hr, 40 minutes with 1 intermission