The Kansas City Repertory Theatre turns to historical romance on a grand scale for its new production, D. Tucker Smith’s “The Roof of the World.”
The play is a speculative work of fiction set against the backdrop of the epic “Great Game” — the British Empire’s 19th-century struggle with Imperial Russia to control vast tracts of Central Asia that included parts of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran and China.
Staging the world premiere is Eric Rosen, the Rep’s artistic director, who in a recent interview sounded absolutely giddy at the challenge of re-creating high adventure on the Copaken Stage.
“A very different version under the title ‘The Great Game’ was done (several) years ago but it’s been so reworked that it counts as a new play,” Rosen said.
Indian-American actress Anjali Bhimani, who was in the original production, is in this new version as well. In recent interviews, nobody wanted to give away too many plot points. But we know this much: Bhimani’s character, Safia Das, is a spy married to George Hayward (played by Rusty Sneary in the show), a real 19th-century explorer. Part of the play is set in Britain but part of it takes place in what is now Afghanistan.
“I’ve known her since she was a freshman at Northwestern,” Rosen said of Bhimani. “She’s super-athletic and fearless and (in this play) does a lot of knife-fighting and prison escapes. She’s beautiful and fierce. One thing I love about the play is that D. has written a credible historical romance with an Indian woman as the hero. That is so cool and sexy.”
The “Great Game” is how the Brits described the almost century-long struggle with Imperial Russia to control Central Asia. Beginning in 1813, the “game” continued almost 100 years and included a couple of iconic military disasters: the 1842 retreat from Kabul (in which 4,500 British troops and 12,000 civilians were lost) and the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 in Crimea.
The era also produced reams of popular literature. Alfred, Lord Tennyson memorialized the sacrifice of the lost troops in Crimea with his widely read poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Rudyard Kipling, who wrote patronizingly of a loyal “wog” in his poem “Gunga Din,” is credited with coining the term “The Great Game” in his novel “Kim.”
The real George Hayward, after serving in the British Army in India, was dispatched by the Royal Geographical Society to map the Pamir Mountains. In 1870 he was murdered on one of his expeditions. Smith said there were examples of independent, courageous women — Isabella Bird and Gertrude Bell — who explored parts of Asia and the Middle East during the heyday of the British Empire, but they were not in any sense a model for the imaginary Safia Das.
“My starting place was the geopolitics and the terrain and what a woman would have to do to survive in a hostile world,” Smith said.
She encouraged viewers to keep in mind that the play is historical fiction. Hayward, for example, was never married.
“All of the content about (Hayward’s) explorations and the geopolitics of the time are true; his ‘personal’ life in the play is fiction,” she said.
Smith said the first version of the play was written during a residency at a summer writer’s conference in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina in 2003. Smith said one of her goals was to tap into the aesthetic of 19th-century serial literature that drew readers in by making them wonder what happens next. But she was also aware that she was calling for events on stage that are rarely attempted.
The residency allowed her two weeks to get a draft written. Every other day she would read the new material to fellow writers, who she said responded to the narrative drive. At night she often wrote by candlelight.
“I wanted to explore serial literature and I wanted the play to read that way,” Smith said. “It was great to have that audience because I would leave them with a cliff-hanger. And now what’s great is watching Eric Rosen. When he read it he understood that’s what the play had to be.”
The original idea, Smith said, was to examine the theme of female subjugation in the 19th century, both in England and in its colonies.
“I’d never written a period play before,” she said. “But I started thinking about the British Raj because there was something there about female subjugation. Then I read ‘The Great Game’ (by Peter Hopkirk). I got to the chapter about George Hayward and was transfixed.”
Smith and Bhimani became close friends after the initial 2007 production. Bhimani grew up in the Orange County suburbs of Los Angeles and has appeared on Broadway in “Bombay Dreams” and Mary Zimmerman’s “Metamorphoses.”
She said she enjoys the physical demands of this show.
“There’s some fighting, there’s some climbing, there’s swinging,” Bhimani said. “In that sense it is absolutely a dream role. It’s a very physical play.”
Smith said she allowed herself total creative freedom as she wrote and rewrote the piece. She was acutely aware that she was writing something for the stage that was nothing like anything else she’d written, and was unlike conventional plays.
“It was so freeing to write what I wanted to write and then sell the idea to others,” she said. “As an artist, I don’t want handcuffs. But there were people at the residency who told me: ‘We were all thinking how in the world is she going to get this produced?’ ”
Bhimani put it this way: “In the theater we have singing and dancing monkeys. We can do whatever we want and not be restricted by the shackles of realism.”
▪ “The Roof of the World” officially opens March 4 at Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut streets. The show runs through March 27. Call 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.