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ATC offers passage to India

Actor fills the shoes of a god

By Leigh E. Rich

From Joseph in a Christmas pageant at age 4 to the Hindu god Ganesha, actor David Paul Francis has had some very large shoes to fill. And he steps into his latest role in the Arizona Theatre Company’s rendition of Terrance McNally’s “A Perfect Ganesh” very carefully.

A looming, elephant-headed and four-armed Hindu god, Ganesha is the remover of obstacles and the patron of scholars. His blessings are desired at the incipient stage of any endeavor—the construction of a house, the joining of hands on a business deal, the first steps of a personal journey.

“For a lot of people,” Francis says, “this god is a real god. It’s a pretty big undertaking. I take it very, very seriously. And I’m very respectful of the character as written and the religion that it is based in.”

McNally, known for his humor and insight in works such as “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” and “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune,” weaves Ganesha through his pilgrimage play about two American women who travel through the enigmatic and exotic land of India. Ganesha accompanies them in their physical and spiritual journeys. Both women have experienced personal tragedies and search for reconciliation: One fears the consequences of finding a lump in her breast, the other aches after rejecting and then losing her homosexual son.

“They both have different agenda,” Francis says.

He also believes that McNally has an agenda of his own, to “demystify the way the West understands the East.” Similar to Shakespeare’s tradition of moving his characters geographically before they can experience transformation, McNally takes his audience to the mysterious and often misunderstood land of India. However, he adds a new twist to the pilgrimage tradition.

“I think that’s the interesting part of the play,” Francis says, “we don’t have to go to these mystical lands. The changes can occur in ourselves. Really, the answers in this play are in (the two women). But sometimes we look too hard.”

Francis believes “A Perfect Ganesh” is McNally’s attempt to reconcile the dualities of life, and Ganesha embodies this coming to terms with the Western paradox. While he is rotund and powerful (he is, after all, the son of two other Hindu gods, Shiva and Parvati), Ganesha rides on a rat and is a connoisseur of dance. And Francis enjoys his whimsical and funny nature.

“He is the queller of obstacles. That’s kind of his function. There are really no negative qualities associated with him. He’s big. He’s cheerful, giving. He’s seldom sad. He very much proves that opposites can exist side by side … and that everything can live in harmony. Tragedy and happiness are sort of the same thing.”

Francis doesn’t know how audiences will react to “A Perfect Ganesh” which incorporates metaphysical elements not usually seen in a play. As Ganesha, Francis interacts with the two women in several different disguises and surreal situations. Many of the characters’ internal thoughts are produced on stage for the audience to experience. Ganesha acts as both the narrator and instigator of the action.

“I’m sort of the host of the evening. I break the fourth wall.”

While the play encompasses foreign ideas and fantastic scenes, Francis says, “I think McNally really did his homework. I think he, to a very large degree, understands what the Indian experience is about.”

And Francis, himself East Indian, feels he has “an insight into the character. … (Acting) has been a constant throughout my whole life. This is what I love, this is who I am. This is when I’m at my best. Playing (Ganesha) is wonderful. It’s a real challenge. Ganesha comes into people’s lives, and he touches them (in some) way. Sometimes you don’t see the god.”

Rich, L.E. (1996, March 29). ATC offers passage to India. Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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