“Dance Like a Man” is a fascinating study of two generations in a family of dancers, by famed playwright Mahesh Dattani of India.
Family tensions, artistic ambitions, gender roles and post-revolutionary convictions intersect in the fascinating “Dance Like a Man,” now on the boards at ACT Theatre in a presentation by the Seattle ethnic-arts group Pratidhwani.
Insightful stories about children rebelling against parents, and long marriages in crisis, can have universal resonance. But what makes this layered tale doubly interesting is its cultural context.
“Dance Like a Man” author Mahesh Dattani is one of India’s best-known contemporary dramatists, and this 1989 work is among his most popular plays. (It was also the basis of a same-titled feature film.)
‘Dance Like a Man’
by Mahesh Dattani. Through Aug. 9 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $10-$15 (206-292-7676 or acttheatre.org).
While members of the Seattle area’s burgeoning South Asian community may be familiar with Dattani’s work, for others this piece provides a rare, intimate glimpse into the dynamics between two clashing generations within a modern Indian family.
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It is significant that this is a clan of classical Indian dancers. Longtime performers of Bharatanatyam, an elegant and spiritual temple dance with origins dating back 2,000 years, Jairaj (Abhijeet Rane) and his wife Ratna (Meenakshi Rishi) have retired after a mediocre career and are now lavishing their hopes for higher achievement on their gifted adult daughter Lata (Tanvee Kale).
The outsider here, and our surrogate in trying to figure out this complicated family, is Viswas (Jay Athalye), Lata’s easygoing boyfriend.
He is meeting his future in-laws for the first time. And early on, the snappy banter and comical misunderstandings suggest we’re in for a romantic sitcom. But the play cleverly switches gears, as we observe a nagging, deep-rooted bitterness in the bickering older couple. And a family heirloom, a beautiful shawl, is a symbol that enfolds us in the past, as some of the actors (under Agastya Kohli’s conscientious direction) switch roles to turn back the clock several decades.
Rane quickly, believably transforms into Jairaj’s father Amritlal, a vigorous activist for Indian independence from Great Britain. Another textual layer here is how radical zeal can turn into reactionary conservatism once a revolution is won — and a new wave of youths are rebelling against their elders.
Amritlal views the dance passion and limited economic prospects of his son Jairaj (played as a younger man by Athalye) and daughter-in-law (Kale) with disdain. They’re an affront to his ideal of manhood, and an elevation of an art form which, vis a vis women, became associated with prostitution.
Jairaj is part of a movement to honor and reclaim this cultural heritage, and open it up more to male performers — yet he’s financially dependent on his father. In a preface to the published script, Indian theater artist Mithran Devanesan defined one of the play’s core issues: “Are we the liberal-minded persons we like to believe we are or do we blindly kowtow to unwritten family conduct that is the easier path to take?”
As parental and marital stresses mount in both eras (the women’s’ concerns are also addressed) set designer David Hsieh employs simple, effective devices to contrast past with present in his attractive set of an antique-adorned home.
The acting here ranges from adequate to stirring, though it is always sincere. And to my unfamiliar ears, sometimes a thick Indian accent (especially Athalye’s) can make scattered lines hard to decipher.
As a welcome preshow and intermission enhancement, Pratidhwani is presenting vibrant demonstrations of classical Indian dance by various practitioners.