Manu Narayn and Grace Zandarski in Indian Ink
Manu Narayn and Grace Zandarski in Indian Ink
Given that I've seen productions of Shakespeare at Stratford-on-Avon, I thought it was time to see a Tom Stoppard production at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia. If that comparison seems grandiose, do understand that the Wilma, now ensconced in a handsome building on the Avenue of the Arts, has become our nation's foremost purveyor of Stoppard works: Arcadia opened the new house in 1996, and Travesties (1997), On the Razzle (1998), The Invention of Love (in 1999--before Broadway), and The Real Inspector Hound (2000) have all followed. Now comes Indian Ink.

You've got to give great credit to Jiri and Blanka Zizka, the theater's co-artistic directors. After all, Stoppard's plays are hardly big box-office, partly because they're often daunting. Last season in New York, The Invention of Love got raves from the critics and lots of awards but closed pretty quickly, even with the Tonys and Robert Sean Leonard on board. One reason had to be the demands it made on John Q. Theatergoer; to grasp this play about A.E. Housman, you had to be more than reasonably literate. Indeed, the University of Chicago, to help playgoers understand what was on Stoppard's mind, published a glossary--a 28 page glossary! A theatergoer who must bone up to that degree before attending a play often says "the hell with it" and buys a ticket for another show.

The happy news is that the Wilma program for Indian Ink has but a one-page glossary, which suggested to me that the play would be much easier to understand. Let's see: "chotapeg" is a single shot of whiskey, "babus" are clerks who write in English. (I can tell you from those 28 University of Chicago pages last year that reading a Stoppard glossary helps immeasurably when you're seeing the play. You don't have to memorize the words and their meanings, mind you; even if you've simply read the words in advance, they have a familiarity when you hear them, which is much better than your saying, "Huh? Whazzat?" all night long.

But wait! The Wilma glossary admits that it is "abbreviated," and under it is a note that says, "Please see glossary and timeline in the Wilma newsletter." Oh-oh. Even that doesn't turn out to be so bad, for there is only a half-page more of definitions and less than a full page's worth of timeline. But there is an essay stating that, of all Stoppard's plays, Indian Ink is "his most mysterious to date." Oy.

Yet I found Indian Ink not at all murky in Jiri Zizka's quietly intense and sure-handed production. It's the story of Flora Crewe, a fictitious British poet of the '30s who knows H.G. Wells, Charlie Chaplin, Modigliani. She also knows George Bernard Shaw, who wanted to cast her in Pygmalion. (Sounds like Lee in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, no?) As embodied by the Wilma's Grace Zandarski, we see the appeal. The actress gives Flora a disposition as lovely as her cultured accent but is sexually frank, too. That shows up in her poems: "Write what you know," she explains.

Flora's doctor tells her that a nice journey would be good for her health, so she chooses India, where she meets Nirad Das (well played by Manu Narayan), a portrait artist who asks to paint her. She assents and, as he works, they converse. She's disappointed that he's as English as the Duke of Kent--he even says "Fiddlesticks!"--for she wishes he'd forge his own Indian identity. And though Flora understands that India has belonged to England since 1757, and that this fact is bound to have a profound influence on all its citizens, she would like to see Nirad take a more Indian approach to his painting.

We learn about Flora not only from the scenes that involve her but also from some latter-day ones where her sister Eleanor is being questioned by E.C. Pike. He's collecting information on Flora to publish first a "Collected Letters" and then a biography. Pike (beautifully and officiously played by William Zielinski) loves to footnote and steps out to tell us what "FD" did after we see what she actually did. Adds a dour Eleanor (equally well played by Barbara Haas), "There are pages where Flora can hardly get a word in." Then she notes that "Nobody gave twopence about her when she was alive--except to get her knickers off." Certainly, David Durance (the estimable Richard G. Lyntton), whom we see teaching Flora to ride a horse, makes a pass which she rebuffs, and when he gets back to business and instructs "Knees together," she says, "'Fraid so."

See? Good dialogue, and nothing there to obfuscate. Instead of a glossary, maybe there should be a page of all the wonderful quotations that we'll want to remember now and forever. Says Pike to Eleanor, "That's why God made authors and poets--so that the rest of us can get published." Says Eleanor to Pike, "Biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong."

It all fits well on the elegantly wide Wilma stage, performed by 18 actors who are 18-karat gold in front of a beautiful cyclorama of an all-encompassing Indian tree. The playhouse, by the way, greatly resembles our Signature Theatre, though the Wilma has a few more rows--which I hope it always needs. How wonderful that such an ambitious theater, now in its third decade, should have such a lovely showplace and a national profile.

Indian Ink closes this weekend, but the Wilma won't go too long without a Stoppard. Come November 20-26, it will join forces with The Philadelphia Orchestra to offer a rare production of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour at the new Kimmel Center across the street. In this work, as Stoppard himself describes it, "[a] lunatic triangle player who thought he had an orchestra [is now] sharing a cell with a political prisoner." Hence, an orchestra plays the music that André (Coco) Previn composed and that the triangle player believes he hears. (How well I remember the 1979 production at Lincoln Center, which started with René Auberjonois conducting the make-believe orchestra in his head as we heard the music provided by that orchestra. When the prisoner (played by Eli Wallach) coughed at one point, Auberjonois gave him the baleful and disgusted look that so many people give others who cough at classical concerts.

Before Every Good Boy Deserves Favour takes the stage in Philly, the newest Stoppard work--a trilogy called The Coast of Utopia--will be presented at the Royal National Theatre in London, and the Wilma is conducting a trip so that anxious and interested theatergoers can see it over three consecutive nights. Call Lucia Reynolds at 215-893-9456, ext. 109, or e-mail lmr@wilmatheater.org, if you're as dedicated to Tom Stoppard as the Wilma is.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]