My story is like a dream. It won't be real, but it will be felt.
Ravi Jain begins Gimme Shelter by telling the audience that the above phrase is how his grandfather, a master storyteller, would begin one of his fireside tales. Jain himself is a master storyteller, first as himself narrating, and then as a dancer/mime/puppet/prop that illustrates, while he narrates in a taped voiceover. The prologue references themes of climate change, forced migration and the guilt of privilege. It is very earnest and teeters on the verge of cringeworthy except that Jain is very gifted at drawing the audience in. And he shares his personal guilt.
Jain is concerned about the unethical practices of the company that manufactured the gold medals for the Pan Am games, yet the cultural festival Panamania provided the money which made Gimme Shelter possible. He shares a photo of a boy from the doomed-by-climate-change island Tuvalu and tugs our heartstrings, but, what can he, what can we, do? The contradictions are admitted, questioned, but the prologue is a set-up. A set-up for another set-up.
What follows is truly extraordinary: Jain masks himself and becomes a tale inspired by The Mahabharata. What appears to be a simple stage set is actually full of sophisticated visual and emotional surprises, and Jain's interactions with it are mesmerizing. Like all good mythological tales, this one is highly metaphorical, allegorical and haunting. The fable winds its way back to the prologue's metaphors in a subtle but emphatic way.
It is at this point, right at the end, that Gimme Shelter attempts something truly daring and exceedingly brazen, Jain moves from the intellectual and magical to the gut level. I don't want to ruin the effect - the element of surprise is crucial because as soon as I saw where he was heading I began frantically calculating the distance to an exit - by revealing any spoilers.
For a majority of the audience it seems to work - there were tears, murmurs of words like "powerful" while others were stunned into a silence that turned into communal discussion. It even scratched at my cynical surface. Though I rolled my eyes, and just did again while recalling the moment, it has been nagging at me. Allowing oneself to be seduced into a theatrical instant will not solve anything other than momentarily assuaging one's, in my and most of the rest of the audience's specific cases, white privileged guilt.
I'm still mulling it over and I'm still resenting/admiring where Gimme Shelter took me. One of the questions asked of the hero on his quest is,
What is the greatest distance between two people?
The answer, required for safe passage, is:
Gimme Shelter doesn't solve the problems, or answer the questions, it poses, but it did make me face that fear. And that is almost as extraordinary, and even more thought-provoking, than the truly stellar theatrical middle section.