Theater Review: A PERFECT GANESH (Theatricum Botanicum)

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by Michael M. Landman-Karny on August 15, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles


In the realm of contemporary theater, where scripts often tend to shy away from tackling profound and uncomfortable subjects, A Perfect Ganesh is a remarkable outlier. This captivating play penned by Terrence McNally transcends the boundaries of conventional storytelling, delving unflinchingly into themes of loss, self-discovery, and spirituality. With its poignant narrative, exceptional character development, and moving execution, this revival at Theatricum Botanicum makes the case for this theatrical near-masterpiece, resonating deeply, and leaving a lasting impression that lingers well beyond the final curtain.

Rajiv Shah, Melora Marshall, Ellen Geer

Set against the evocative backdrop of the culturally rich and vibrant India, the play follows two American women, Margaret Civil and Katharine Brynne, on an emotionally charged journey of healing and transformation. The need to come to terms with respective loss of their sons is the catalyst for their pilgrimage to India, a land where the sacred and the secular intermingle in a dance of colors and contrasts. Guiding them in this journey is Ganesh, a Hindu God with four arms and the head of the elephant. Fluid in his power to assume any guise, at peace with all things, Ganesh ­– God of intellect wisdom, prudence, and “remover of obstacles” — appears to them in various guises during their stay — a travel company representative, a Japanese tourist, a street beggar. Ganesh serves as a symbol of transformation and self-discovery, encouraging the women to confront their pasts and find healing in the present.

Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall

Initially we are introduced to Ganesh perched atop a rooftop overlooking the outdoor theater. From this vantage point, he proceeds to elucidate his diverse array of abilities, which encompass omnipresence and shapeshifting. A notable instance finds Katharine entertaining the notion that she spies him even beyond the confines of an aircraft at an altitude of 40,000 feet. Throughout certain sequences, Ganesh assumes both masculine and feminine personas, a concept that predates the popularization of the term “non-binary.” In a fleeting moment, he embodies the former lover of Katharine’s gay son – a profound void that she carries within, all the while grappling with her past inability to comprehend or accept her son’s sexuality.

Melora Marshall, Ellen Geer, Mueen Jahan

The two ladies find themselves embroiled in disagreements over trivial matters. Notwithstanding this, Katharine remains resolute in her determination to depart from the comfort of their five-star hotel and venture to India Gate. Her objective is to immerse herself amidst the common populace, those who bed down on the streets during the night.

Mueen Jahan and Shivani Thakkar

Throughout their trek, Katharine and Margaret’s personal baggage comes to the surface, and their perceptions of themselves and the world around them begin to shift. The characters are multi-dimensional and imbued with authenticity, making their emotional journeys palpable to the audience. 

Mueen Jahan, Rajiv Shah, Melora Marshall

Margaret’s journey from denial to acceptance is particularly noteworthy, as she transitions from a grieving mother clinging to her pain to a woman gradually rediscovering her strength and resilience. Katharine’s inner turmoil and quest for liberation resonate deeply, and her interactions with the charismatic Ganesh (a versatile Mueen Jahan) serve as a narrative fulcrum that propels the story forward. Stage and film vet Melora Marshall perfectly captures the growth arc of this troubled soul.

Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall

The illustrious Ellen Geer as Katharine has the easier part of playing a WASP matriarch with a tough exterior shell and a temper but still manages to capture the beating heart beneath the prickly exterior.

Mueen Jahan, Rajiv Shah, Melora Marshall

Rajiv Shah impresses with his acting by playing several roles including the ghost of Katherine’s son, a fellow traveler and a snooty airline employee. 

Shivani Thakkar and Mueen Jahan

Sharayu Mahale (covering for Shivani Thakkar) plays the non-speaking role of a Hindu Aspara. This celestial being graces the stage with her graceful and ethereal dances at pivotal moments throughout the play. Accompanying her at certain instances, other cast members contribute to the production — they are Sam Brock, Jessica Libero Edwards, Craig “Linc” Lincoln, Liza Rash, and Anthony Soliz.

Mueen Jahan and Ellen Geer

Direction by Mary Jo Duprey effectively stresses the mystical nature of the play rather than falling into the trap of staging it as a tearjerker.

Rajiv Shah and Melora Marshall

Hayden Kirschbaum‘s lighting and Ian Geatz‘s extensive two-tier staging make great use of the wide Theatricum Botanicum stage, with the forest background serving as another character in this geographical and spiritual journey. 

The Ensemble

At the heart of A Perfect Ganesh lies its exploration of spirituality and self-discovery, showing India at its most mundane and most sacred. The play’s thematic depth is further enriched by its meditative pacing, allowing for moments of introspection to breathe and resonate. McNally’s script weaves humor, poignancy, and philosophical introspection with a deft hand, resulting in a finely balanced narrative that tugs at the heartstrings while inviting contemplation. The dialogue is a tapestry of emotions, ranging from heart-wrenching confessions to lighthearted banter, reflective of the complex emotional landscape that the characters traverse. McNally’s creation reminds us that beneath the veneer of our individual stories lies a universal tapestry of shared emotions and journeys.

The Ensemble

Like McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, A Perfect Ganesh is about 30 minutes too long. Despite its longueur, it isn’t merely a play; it’s an immersive experience that challenges, uplifts, and transforms. With its rich tapestry of emotions, unforgettable characters, and thought-provoking exploration of spirituality, the play has left an indelible mark on my heart since I saw it in 1993. In a world hungry for stories that resonate beyond the surface, A Perfect Ganesh is a beacon of theatrical artistry that beckons us to delve deeper into our own narratives and embrace the myriad facets of the human experience.

Shivani Thakkar

photos by Kevin Hudnell

A Perfect Ganesh
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Topanga
(midway between PCH and the 101 freeway)
ends on October 7, 2023
for tickets, call 310-455-3723 or visit Theatricum

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