In Sandaya: Burmese Lessons, singer and actress Meghan McCall played the role of Catherine, an American who travels to Burma during its financial crisis in 1987. Catherine persists in learning “sandaya” from the acclaimed pianist and composer Gita Lulin Maung Ko Ko, and remains in Burma during the 2007 protests and demonstrations.
Toward the end of the performance, a video shows monks marching in the streets and the action on stage presents scenes of violence and chaos, with shoes tossed across the floor. The show closes with Catherine deciding to remain in Burma and a Burmese artist (played by Chaw Ei Thein) leaving the country.
These scenes of arrival and departure provided bookends to the performance: in between there were many vignettes featuring singing, dancing, puppetry, and dialogue. Program notes offered some context: “Zat Pwe” is a Burmese form of theater composed of dance, music, stories, puppetry, and popular song that tells adaptations of the Ramayana, Inao, and Buddhist Jataka stories. Traditionally, these productions lasted all night and were entertainment for the royal court. Sandaya: Burmese Lessons is also long performance (almost three hours) but the story offered both entertainment and political commentary.
It was intriguing to see the blend of traditional Burmese costumes and movement with images of performance art: in one scene describing censorship and revolution, Chaw Ei Thein wrapped her body in tape, covering her mouth with a large piece of the adhesive.
Each individual scene added to the plot but they also presented so many different theatrical approaches that the profusion of formats stymied the flow of the production. Although the cast was abundantly talented, the show needed a dramaturg who could hone and edit this creation. Susan Galbraith served as both scriptwriter and director, and her program notes describe her personal investment in this narrative since she, too, has lived abroad and experienced some of the political and cultural changes in Southeast Asia.
For centuries, dance and music forms have served as vehicles that carry a culture’s values and histories. When a royal court or governing body nurtured certain forms of music and dance, they tended to enforce ideas of control, power, and authority. In Sandaya: Burmese Lessons, the element of the show that stays with me is the blending of traditional and progressive ideas as seen in its theatrical forms.
Some of the shimmering costumes suggested spectacles presented in the royal court while other scenes used a more stripped-down aesthetic that evoked political theater or popular diversions. The play between these styles – the refined stylization of some moments and the casualness of other vignettes and scene-changes — was striking because it communicated a play between established and revolutionary approaches. Scene changes were not masked but exposed: a large roll of paper painted to show different interiors provided a makeshift backdrop and actors simply rolled the paper to transition from place to place.
Sandaya: Burmese Lessons was a multifaceted production that included music, dancing, acting, and video to tell the story of political, social, and cultural turmoil. It marked the first appearance on a stage in the United States for two of the performers: puppeteer U Tun Kyi and percussionist Myanmar Pyi Kyauk Sein.
They were also the most compelling aspects of the creation. Their contributions were creative, surprising, and poignant as U Tun Kyi turned inanimate objects into emotive creatures and Myanmar Pyi Kyauk Sein produced sounds that were as intriguing to watch as they were to hear. He played “put waing,” and was positioned in an instrument that looked like a circular crib of gorgeous gold material: he was encircled by slats that resembled an embellished picket fence holding his 21 drums. As he rotated around 300 degrees he produced patterns that ranged from low to high sounds. When he played with pianist Kit Young (she was also the composer of the show) their music was vibrant, cascading, and iridescent. Images of water, rippling and flowing, filled my senses.
Puppeteer U Tun Kyi deserves special recognition: in a duet between his marionette and one of the actors, his puppet danced with exquisite grace and rhythm. In his array of appearances in the show, U Tun Kyi not only presented traditional characters but also appeared with a marionette of a monk and one that looked like the sunglass-wearing men who shadowed Catherine and others. Each of his scenes was distinct and transformative, reminding me of the ways in which puppets may not speak, but their actions can communicate volumes about our relationships and beliefs.
Sandaya appeared at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, July 10 – 21, 2013.
Sandaya: Burmese Lessons . Directed by Susan Galbraith . Featuring Kit Young – Pianist-Composer, Chaw Ei Thein – Performance Artist-Actress, Meghan McCall – singer-actress, U Yin Htwe – actor, Kyal Thee – dancer, actor, comedian, U Tun Kyi – puppeteer, Erle Taylor – dancer, Myanmar Pyi Kyauk Sein – percussionist . Kit Young, – pianist. Production Manager: Pam Bierly Jusino, Lighting Designer, Chris Holland . Backdrop Paintings, Chaw Ei Thein . Backdrop Design & Constr. Steve Cosby & Renegade Scenic Co. . Audiovisual Design, Mark Perkins .
Jane Horwitz . Washington Post