Jack Helbig on Theater: Sanskrit Production Holds Allure for Local Playwright / by R. Sheth

Sanskrit production holds allure for local playwright

August 3, 2006

Christopher Johnson is best known as one of the founders of the late, lamented Defiant Theatre (1993-2004), popular for its full-throttle, all-American, action-filled productions.

So it is a little surprising that one of the first projects he would turn to after the closing of his company would be an adaptation of a play by an obscure playwright, Bhasa, who wrote a thousand-plus years ago in a very dead language, Sanskrit.

But the more Johnson talks about the play, "Balacarita: The Adventures of Young Krishna," the more it sounds like a Defiant show.

"Bhasa's play is full of miracles and adventures," Johnson says, adding that it tells the story of the early life of the Hindu god, Krishna, who was considered the human incarnation of Vishnu.

"The play contains elements similar to those of the Hercules story," Johnson says. "In one story, Krishna as a young baby keeps stealing butter from everyone in the village. To keep him from doing this his mother attaches a mortar board to his legs. But the Baby Krishna is so strong he pulls down several trees."

In another episode from the play, Krishna lifts up a mountain and holds it over the village to protect it from a torrential rainstorm.

"Bhasa is very different from most Sanskrit writers," Johnson says. "Most Sanskrit plays are Rasa-based. That means they are not conflict-based, the way Western theater is. The important thing in that drama is the sentiment being portrayed. The stories literally lack any conflict.

"They are long, long love stories where nothing ever happens. Seven acts long, where the lover relishes in great detail how depressed the lover is because the lover is separated from the object of his or her affection."

Bhasa's plays are different, Johnson notes.

"Technically, there is no conflict. As an incarnation of Vishnu he cannot be killed but he does spend a lot of time in the play defeating demons."

So how did Johnson become interested in the work of Bhasa?

"In the last couple of years of Defiant, my role in the company became that of the purveyor of obscure knowledge," he says. "I first made Shakespeare my thing. Then I began to become interested in older theater traditions. I became interested in Renaissance theater and then in the classical theater of Rome, Greece, and Japan. I saw tons of Kabuki theater. We stole from Kabuki left and right for Defiant shows."

Eventually, Johnson's studies led him to the theater of Ancient India and to the work of Bhasa. That's when he became hooked.

"Bhasa's sensibility really appealed to me" Johnson says. "He loved to do monster stories. Most of his plays are concerned with supernatural. Adventure. Action. People overcoming evil."

If I didn't know better, I would swear he was describing a typical action-packed Defiant Theatre production.

• Christopher Johnson will direct a staged reading of his adaptation of Bhasa's "Balacarita: The Adventures of Young Krishna," as part of Silk Road Theatre Project's Al Kasida Staged Reading Series at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Claudia Cassidy Theatre at the The Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph St., Chicago. Admission is free.