THE BEST WAY to see Hali is to go unprepared. Unlike most plays, it works directly on all your senses. The stage juts into the audience. Most of the impact of the drama is not put across through the lines and the plot, but through the beat of the music, the motions of the players, the colors swirling on the stage.
Hali was written in 1950 by G.V. Desani in India. The drama is set in ancient India, and centers around a sort of demi-god, Hali(Steve Bonsey). The play is derived from a novel, but the tale is not unravelled through dialogue and conventional blocking. Rather, Hali tells his story to the audience with the help of a narrator, and as he talks dancers and players sweep onto the stage and act out many of the adventures around him and with him. The music consists of nothing but a very primitive recorder and a drum, but along with the pounding of the drum sounds the pounding of the players' feet, their chanting, and their motions combine all phases of the production into a powerful experience.
Hali was born a beautiful child, so the tale tells. He was the darling of all the women in his town. The gods, however, decide to torment him and haunt him. Katharine Weiser plays Bhava, the mean and brutal god who torments Hali. Weiser's performance tops the cast. Her countless hideous facial expressions, all of which keep the audience frozen in their seats, make her performance as a wicked god convincing. Her acting is so demonesque that it causes the other players to react to her intensely. At times however, her cruelly bellowing voice too often strikes the same crescendo with each sentence, and becomes monotonous and irritating.
Steve Bonsey shines a little less brightly than Weiser. He has the burden of explaining the story to the crowd while acting it out at the same time. Bonsey is on the stage through the entire play, and makes the production flow well from one adventure to another. His acting is convincing enough, but at times his lines seem to drag on with the same tone and intensity. He does, however, manage to really become his character, interacting with the other players and the audience enough to rivet the attention of the audience. Bonsey's forte is physical movement. His movements are continual and ever-changing. His facial expressions range from a lamenting grimace to a dreamlike smile.
The gods torment Hali by causing him to witness his mother's death. Even Hali's love, Rooh (Maura Moynihan), dies. Halie tires of these divine pranks and challenges the gods. He renounces their influence. He discards his belief in them, so they no longer can control his mind. Hali takes his own life in the end, proving to the gods that he is master of his own destiny. But he also proves that he cannot live without the dreams and visions, good or bad, that the gods provide. Bonsey's death is quick and shocking, far removed from drawn-out, overplayed Hollvwood deaths.
Without the dancers (June Kinoshita, Mira Nair, Maura Moynihan, Laurie Merrick) the plot would not hold together well, nor would it be as exciting. The dancers' movements are poetic, blending with the words and the music so thoroughly that they are inseparable. The different elements explain and express each other.
Hali is a convincing and sensually exciting experience, from the actors and the dancer-nymphs, right down to the music, blocking and lighting--which leaves the audience rubbing its eyes. Go with no presumptions, no expectations. Just open up your senses and let this play make you experienced.