Unlike most bare-bones stage versions of great literary classics, Martin Sherman’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1924 “A Passage to India” provides auds enough substance to chew on. There is also much to relish in Nancy Meckler’s stylized visual treatment of the material, which deals with the powerful mutual attraction (and equally strong mistrust) between culturally diverse nations during England’s long and ultimately disastrous occupation of India. But in virtually ignoring Forster’s deeper ruminations on the sociopolitics of colonialism, this production has the nutritional value of eye candy.
Meckler’s London-based company, which specializes in the choreographed ensemble interpretations of such wordy texts as “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace,” last wowed auds at BAM’s 2000 Next Wave Festival with “Jane Eyre.” The ensemble applies its highly physicalized treatment to Martin Sherman’s (“The Boy From Oz”) distillation of the human drama at the heart of Forster’s reflective novel — the ruination of an Indian named Dr. Aziz, whose openhearted admiration for the Raj does him no good when he is put on trial on suspicion of molesting Adela Quested, an Englishwoman he innocently invites on an exploration of the mysterious Marabar caves.
Although the fastidious Alex Caan (“A Beautiful Thing”) shrinks from the ludicrous aspect of Dr. Aziz’s pathetic social aspirations, he has a fine feeling for the sensitive outsider undone by his ideals. Fenella Woolgar (highly visible these days in “Bright Young Things,” “Vera Drake,” “Stage Beauty”) picks up some of the nuances of Quested’s conflicted cultural yearnings and sexual revulsions. While they don’t do much with certain dumbed-down secondary characters, the classically trained Brit cast talks the talk with appropriate elegance.
Antony Bunsee, head and turban above them all as Hindu philosopher Professor Godbole, wittily personifies a civilization that regards foreign interlopers with a mixture of amusement and contempt. When he isn’t struggling with homoerotic impulses arbitrarily imposed on his character, William Osborne, Dr. Aziz’s loyal friend Fielding, is the very model of the enlightened Englishman who is drummed out of the colonial clubhouse for daring to apply the same principles of English justice and fair play to an Indian. Veteran actress Susan Tracy smartly suggests the ambiguity of Mrs. Moore, an enigmatic Englishwoman whose abandonment of Dr. Aziz is all the more baffling because of her genuine understanding of India and honest regard for its people.
But while their acting chops reflect well on the company as a whole, Meckler’s production is more in the spirit of performance theater than “Masterpiece Theater.” Burnished to a glow in Chris Davey’s intricate lighting scheme, Niki Turner’s production design is both simple and severe. Two solid units of a brassy metal are flipped from vertical to horizontal position to do versatile duty from scene to scene. Lying flat, the long narrow piece becomes the train that carries Moore and Quested, along with Dr. Aziz and a native entourage, into the countryside for their fateful caving excursion. Upright, the taller unit serves as a prison wall — with a barred window opening into the cell where Dr. Aziz is imprisoned.
Like the set, which acquires only minimal accoutrements like candles or a fountain to change its face and function, the period costumes of pristine white that are worn by all castes and classes are ingeniously transformed with bits of color and cloth and the inevitable English umbrella.
Applying this “story theater” technique across the board, Meckler assigns more labor-intensive chores to the dozen or so members of the full ensemble — with decidedly mixed results. Bunched together to suggest the massive elephant that carries Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested from train to cave, the actors make effective props. But this technique comes to grief inside the Marabar caves, when half the company curls up on the ground in imitation of rocks and boulders, while the rest of the players execute a group-grope of Quested that leaves that proper English lady in a deep swoon. Despite Woolgar’s game efforts, in no way does this silly pantomime convey the profound psychosexual convulsions that induce Quested to level her hysterical charge against Dr. Aziz.
In his novel, Forster made masterful use of erotic symbolism to advance his complex thoughts about the tortured love-hate relationship between the colonial Brits and the vast, beautiful and mystifying nation of their occupation. But the symbols are not the substance of the book — as they have become here — and the mere enactment of symbolic behavior, however cleverly executed, is no substitute for deep thought.