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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Osiris comes to Minneapolis and
Driving Miss Daisy plays in St. Paul


Pangea looks to the past to find present truth in Osiris

Osiris
Alberto Panelli and Amirali Raissnia
In a time when "truth" is routinely wrapped in media spin and religion is distorted for dubious ends, playwright Meena Natarajan and Pangea World Theater artistic director Dipankar Mukherjee turn to an ancient Egyptian epic, "The Book of the Dead," in their search for truth. For the past six years, Natarajan has combed through the poetry of the ancients' massive burial tomes, and the result is Osiris, an epic, told in 90 minutes, and played out in symbol, movement, metaphor and poetry.

The play retells the myth of Osiris, a much-loved Egyptian King. His jealous brother Seth kills him, tears his corpse into 14 pieces, flings them around the world and takes over Osiris' fertile kingdom of the Nile Valley. In a journey beset with difficulties, the goddess Isis finds and buries each part of her dead husband, and gives new life to Osiris' as the ruler and judge of the underworld. Osiris becomes a god associated with death and renewal.

The "Book of the Dead" has emotional truths that are timeless and universal," said Natarajan. "It's profound on many levels."

Mukherjee agreed that Osiris, like all great literature, deals with large and pressing issues. "The heart of the story is about someone who steals power," he said. "[Seth] marginalizes a popular voice and achieves some success but, in turn, he meets with his own fate. I am fascinated by the amorphousness of truth. How objective is the person who documents the truth for history?"

As she began reading the mortuary scrolls, Natarajan was struck by the pivotal role of the storyteller. " I saw how the scribe, Tehuti, was writing down judgement. He was creating the world as he wrote. Seth keeps questioning the story that Tehuti tells. Whatever story gets told eventually, that's what becomes historical truth."

Osiris opens with the scribe Tehuti, and five other scribes writing the story of life. "Tehuti creates a story," Mukherjee said, "and the characters become too big for him to control. They dismiss Tehuti's story and create their own. Any sense of linear time explodes."

Mukherjee said that Isis' journey in the play symbolizes the search for the truth. He directs Osiris with an acute consciousness of world politics in the context of the present election year. To emphasize its international nature, Mukherjee has cast actors from international backgrounds, who sometimes drop into their native languages.

Natarajan likens her role as playwright to Tehuti's and feels the weight of that responsibility, as she creates the world of the play. "The story of Osiris comes to us mostly through the Greek's telling, so the Egyptian story is filtered through other cultural backgrounds, and my own culture of Indian myths feeds into my telling." Her intent is to reveal the truths inherent in the 2000 year-old story with simplicity and honesty.

We live in a world of half-truths," said Mukherjee. "In Osiris, we attempt to find the clarity of truth."

Osiris March 20 - April 11. Thursdays - Sundays 8:00 p.m. Sunday matinees 2:00 p.m. $10 - 15:00. Pangea World Theater at The Playwrights' Center, The Waring Jones Theater, 2301, East Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-203-1088. www.pangeawoldtheater.org.


Photo: Marc Norberg


Actors Theater mounts a safe old favorite, Driving Miss Daisy

Alfred Uhry's charming 1987 play, Driving Miss Daisy, won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the film version, starring Jessica Tandy, won an Academy Award. It has all the right ingredients, strong characters who come to honest life on stage and the theme of an unlikely friendship, formed across the layered chasm of institutionalized racism. Actors Theater of Minnesota's genteel production aboard the Centennial Showboat, also has all the right ingredients, yet the piece feels dated, a comforting chestnut to nibble on for a pleasant night out.

Uhry opens Daisy in 1948 Atlanta. Feisty Daisy Werthan, a well-to-do Jewish widow, can no longer drive a car safely. Her long-suffering but attentive son, Booley, employs a colored driver, Hoke, to drive his mother's new car. Daisy sees the arrangement as an affront to her capability and a waste of money, and she refuses to be driven by Hoke. But he is a wise and patient man, and she finally gives in. As they drive together through some 20 years, a friendship forms between them, in spite of her unconscious racism towards him. That bond deepens when she is confronted with the racism directed at her people.

Their improbable friendship and the pervasive pre-Civil Rights prejudices of the American South live on stage, under Zach Curtis's confident direction and in the hands of three strong actors. Nancy Gormley wears the role of Miss Daisy with the natural ease with which she wears costume designer, Carrie Juntunen's, period dresses. Using superb body language, Gormley ages convincingly on stage and captures her proud character's reluctance to admit the importance of her friendship, across the color line, with Hoke.

Excellent James A. Williams charms as Hoke. He might be illiterate, but Hoke has a bottomless store of good sense and, in Williams' sure hands, immense dignity. Hoke, too, evolves from an employee's "yessum" response to Miss Daisy's nonsense, to quietly challenging her values as an equal human being.

As Booley, Craig Johnson nails Daisy's dull but successful businessman son. He's caught in the cross fire between his willful mother and his unseen wife, who turns their home into a sort of Episcopalian/Jewish hybrid, much to Daisy's vigorously expressed disgust.

On a simple, three-part set, Curtis directs with understated touches, little things, like the first time Hoke takes Miss Daisy's arm, and he captures the sense of passing time, as Daisy and Hoke age before the audience's eyes.

There's little to fault with Actors Theater's production of Daisy but, for me, its very familiarity and sweetness robbed it of energy. But if a warmhearted, old charmer of a play sounds good to you in Minnesota's protracted winter, then head to the Showboat.

Driving Miss Daisy March 5 - April 11. Thursdays and Saturdays 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Fridays 8:00 p.m. Sundays 2:00 p.m. $20 - $25.00. Actors Theater of Minnesota, The Minnesota Showboat, Harriet Island, St. Paul. Tickets: 651-227-1100.



Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area


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Elizabeth Weir



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