Geetha Reddy Joyfully Reclaims an Indian Masterpiece
by K. Marguerite Caronna
J Jha gives a stellar performance as the storyteller of Mahābhārata, an Indian epic rendered in a mere two hours of inspired acting and movement.
Playwright Geetha Reddy carefully selects and condenses a retelling of both well-known and obscure tales. First presented at Oakland Theater Project, J Jha offers a tour-de force performance of legendary figures who embody human traits of nobility, sacrifice, sensuality, and outright bad behavior. What could be more contemporary?
Under the superb direction of OTP’s Michael Socrates Moran, J Jha’s powerful performance captures lightning-in-a-bottle.
Upon entering, to one side is an altar of the Hindu deity Ganesha—remover of obstacles— behind wispy curtains. Jha commences by paying respect to the altar, chanting “Om” to bring the audience to attention. Jha creates an atmosphere of tranquility and peace, drawing us into the sacred space of storytelling.
The simple yet evocative set design by Karla Hargrove and Moran consists of a suspended projection screen, hovering over a mirrored runway surrounded by purple flower petals. Reflected on the runway, we see a running stream, cosmic revelations, and time passing—all evoking the intersection of terrestrial and cosmic worlds.
Jha uses both stage and runway, dancing and acting hypnotical. Chameleon-like, Jha evokes a panoply of super-heroes. Jha seduces us—making eye contact, pointing, speaking directly, offering tea. The actor includes us, delivering characters that span comedy and tragedy, gender-roles and the wonder of the infinite. We are his rapt audience.
Jha takes us through quicksilver renditions of gods and goddesses with exquisite physical movement and expression. The solo storyteller informs us that the Mahābhārata, the longest of ancient epics, dates back to 900 BCE.
At over 200 million words, Jha recounts that a full telling would be like “sitting through 100 Hamlets.” Whew. There are hundreds of characters populating the epic, which Jha humorously displays in a complex “family tree” chart.
A throw of the dice determines which story comes next. The most poignant, and contemporary is the tale of Arjuna the Great Warrior-Archer, who contemplates the conflict of fighting one’s own extended family—as familiar as our current disarray.
During Arjuna’s moral dilemma, the God Krishna delivers the inspirational and beloved book of the Bhagavad Gita.
By the end, Jha reminds us that throwing the dice is never random, but controlled by the Gods. One character warns against “having sex with the Sun God,” while another laments a woman’s destiny that dwindles from multiple choices, to a single choice, then to none.
The stories show that humans reflect the Gods, and the Gods also reflect humanity.
Go see and relish the privilege and joy of this energetic and beautiful performance of an Indian classic. Surrender to the magic of a consummate storyteller.
“Mahābhārata” by Geetha Reddy, directed by Michael Socrates Moran, by Oakland Theater Project and Z Space, San Francisco. Info: Zspace.org – to August 20, 2023.
Cast: J Jha (playing many roles)
Banner photo: J Jah (Storyteller). Photos: Ben Krantz Studio