Thursday, October 30, 2014

Company One Does It Again - An Astounding New England Premiere of "The Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy" by Aditi Brennan Kapil

I have learned to trust the artistic judgment of the folks at the helm of Company One.  Each time I see an announcement of an upcoming show, my first reaction is to say to myself, "That does not seem like my kind of show, but I will go to see it because it is being done by Company One."  And, without fail, it turns out to be something new and exciting and very much "my kind of show"!  I have Company One to thank for consistently stretching my artistic sensibilities and broadening my theatrical horizons.

The latest stretching exercise is the New England Premiere of the stunning "The Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy" by the bold and poetic playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil.  Ms. Kapi is herself an oft-displaced person, so she writes from the deep well of personal experience in addressing the plight of the Indian diaspora.  She is an Indian woman born in Bulgaria, raised in Sweden, and now residing in Minneapolis.  Her over-arching theme in these three pieces centers on the lingering effects and unintended consequences of Imperialism and Colonialism and the many layers of struggle for a displaced person to find a place for herself in a new world.  The three pieces stand alone, but are woven together by a thread that cuts deeply - like the kite string in "Shiv" that is embedded with fine bits of broken glass.

The conceit of this trilogy is that each of the pieces reflects one of the three main Hindu gods who appears in the form of a modern woman in two cases, and in the third case as "B," a person of ambiguous gender, a "hijra."  If you are not conversant with the pantheon of Hindu gods, allow me to offer a quick summary of the three gods who appear in human form in this trinity of pieces.

  • Shiv is the god of destruction for the purpose of rebirth
  • Vishnu is the sustainer and protector god
  • Brahmin is the creator god
The concept of the cosmic sea is important in Hindu cosmology.  In a sense, that cosmic sea is the ocean upon which this trilogy floats, with each piece serving as a different kind of vessel and art form.

The play "Shiv" is clearly the most autobiographical of the three, telling the story of a displaced young Indian woman who is living with her father, a struggling most-modern Punjabi poet having trouble being published in the U.S.  This is also the piece in which Ms. Kapil's animus against the ravages of colonialism is most pronounced.  Here are a few bullet points that stood out for me in this play directed by Summer L. Williams.
  • Shiv and her father are watching TV, a Star Trek-like drama which Shiv's father, Bapu, describes as about "well-meaning Imperialists."
  • Shiv is a kleptomaniac attracted to stealing shiny objects without paying for them and without regard to whom they first belonged.  .  Imperialists and Colonialists could be construed as stealing the shiny objects they desired - the lands they coveted for their tea, silk, cotton, oil or slaves.
  • There is a scene in which Bapu and Shiv's kite with the glass-embedded string morphs into a clothes line on which Shiv hangs laundry.  This play could be viewed as an "airing of Colonialism's dirty laundry."
  • A retired publisher who had previously spurned Bapu's poetry is now Shiv's absentee boss.  When he finally makes his appearance, it is clear that he is the very embodiment of Colonialism run amok.  In making an off-handed remark about the birth of a free India, Shiv retorts: "We are still in labor."
  • His retreat and publishing office sits on a lake - part of the cosmic sea in which Shiv pretends to fish for constellations.
  • The publisher, Mr. Everett, has as his logo a representation of Mt. Everest with India as its shadow.  In Ms. Kapil's cosmology, India continues to languish in the looming shadow cast by the monolith that was the British Raj.
Michael Dwan Singh (Bapu)
Payal Sharma (Shiv)
(Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

Payal Sharma as Shiv is a riveting presence.  Her deeply resonant voice is a commanding force, whether confronting her philandering father who has taken as his girlfriend a "shiny object"in a blonde American woman, or facing down her employers.  Playing Bapu, the father, is Michael Dwan Singh, whose performance is steady and convincing. Portraying the imperious publisher, Mr. Everett, Jeffrey Phillips is right out of central casting as the colonial bearer of the White Man's Burden.  His nephew, Gerard, is Shiv's lover and her "shiny object," until the shimmer fades.  Casey Preston portrays him in an appropriately understated and distant manner.

"The Chronicles of Kalki" tells the story of Vishnu come to earth to help two hapless teenage girls who are struggling with finding their place in the world.  Water again appears as a necessary element, for Kalki brings a steady rain that persists until she leaves.  The trinity of young women actors make this play an engaging event to watch.  Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, Ally Dawson as Kalki is an irresistible force who never encounters an object that she find immovable.  The two girls she comes to help are portrayed convincingly by Stephanie Recio and Pearl Shin.  The police detective who is investigating the disappearance of Kalki is Brandon Green, whose "good cop" shtick is a nice counterpoint to the confusion of the two girls who are being interrogated about Kalki's sudden vanishing act.  Overarching themes in this piece are the blurry line between reality and imagination and the ponderous weight of loneliness.

Pearl Shin (Girl 2)
Ally Dawson (Kalki)
Stephanie Recio (Girl 1)
(Photo by Paul Fox)
"Brahman/I" is billed as a "one hirja stand-up comedy show."  In this piece, issues of gender and finding one's place in the world are explored through the lens of stand-up comedy.  Aila Peck is Brahman/I who was born with genitalia of both sexes, and who must choose one of 12 ways - later revised to 13 ways - of living with this sexually ambiguous identity.  Along the way, she discusses life as lived as a boy and then as a girl.  She is joined on stage by "J," who plays bass riffs while "B" takes refreshment from a glass of water set upstate left.  Again, water is a constant in these pieces. It turns out that "J," played by Casey Preston, is more than just a musical hanger-on; he plays a significant role in "B's" formative years.  Some of the most arresting parts of this routine, scripted very carefully by Kapil, revolve around an overweight and hard-drinking Auntie who habitually offers unsolicited advice of dubious efficacy.  Ms. Peck is effective in capturing and maintaining the attention of the audience through a very prolonged routine.

Casey Preston (J)
Aila Peck (B)
(Photo by Paul Fox)
These three pieces that comprise "The Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy" can be seen separately or in a weekend marathon format through November 22 at the Boston Center for the Arts.  The buzz is strong, so tickets will be going fast.  I urge you to click on the link below to secure your tickets before some not-so-well-intentioned Imperialist corners the market and sells them at a premium on Stub Hub!



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