A lotus emerging from murky water, untarnished, with beauty and grace.

That’s how Beatrice Owens describes her character in “Shakuntala,” a classic Indian play. She plays the female lead character of the same name who’s often compared to a blooming lotus flower. The classical Indian drama contains lots of metaphorical symbolism through dialogue, music and dance.

“The language is beautiful, the poetry is stunning,” Owens, a senior theatre major, said. “And it’s so important to the story.”

The Sanskrit drama opens in Forbes on Tuesday at 8 p.m. and will play through Saturday. It’s the first non-Western show JMU’s Department of Theatre and Dance has put on since 1991.

“The way the West perceives Eastern art as so exotic, as so different, is so wrong,” Owens said. “It’s not; it’s just a different form, like Shakespeare is different than if you’re acting in a Bob Fosse musical.”

The male lead character in the play, senior theatre major Brendan Gaffey, plays the role of King Dushyanta, who falls in love with Shakuntala at first sight. While Owens’ character is much more soft-spoken, Gaffey has speaking parts throughout the entire play.

“My character speaks a lot. He talks the whole show,” Gaffey said. “He has these long speeches with beautiful metaphors and the biggest challenge is to not deliver my lines in a way where I know that they’re poetry, but say them in a way that it’s coming naturally.”

Despite its ancient origins, the play still poses topical issues relevant to today’s society.

“From the perspective of a young woman, ‘Shakuntala’ can sound problematic because she’s so quiet,” Owens said. “It deals with issues like class and social structure.”

Another big part of “Shakuntala” is traditional Indian dance. Both the lead actors, Owens and Gaffey, hadn’t been in a show with that type of choreography before.

“Every movement meant something,” Gaffey said. “It was not even on my radar, the kind of movement we were making. It was a tough challenge to really immerse yourself in something you have no experience with at all.”

Just like its origins, the set, costume and sound design of the play are all very different than the shows the department has put on in the past. Owens and Gaffey both agree that the audience will be getting a unique visual and auditory experience upon walking into the theater.

“The nice thing about this play is it’s not realism,” Owens said. “It allows us a little bit of a heightened sense of reality.”

To create that otherworldly atmosphere, the sound designer, senior English major Izzy Scappaticci, enlisted the help of music majors and her assistant, junior theatre major Molly Weaver. Together, they made sound effects and musical tracks for the play.

“By doing the show, I really got to hone in my abilities as thinking more as an artist and less as an engineer,” Scappaticci said. “My focuses thus far have been to engineer shows and not design them.” 

“Shakuntala” is the biggest show she’s ever worked on.

“My knowledge of sound design is more based in the design of certain effects, not as much music,” Scappaticci said. “I had a lot of help going into the musical components of this.” 

Scappaticci, Owens and Gaffey all agree that the opportunity to work on something out of their comfort zones is extremely valuable for their careers.

 “I’ve learned so much more about something I had no idea about,” Gaffey said. “If I can take anything away from this going forward, it would be to never shy away from projects that are unfamiliar to me.”

 

Contact Julia Nelson at nelso3jl@dukes.jmu.edu.