Theatre in Review

Minita Gandhi’s autobiographical one-woman show is making its official world premiere as the final production of the 16th Street Theater’s tenth anniversary season, but it’s already been subject to a huge number of raves. Developed at Silk Road Rising and Victory Gardens, earlier versions of Muthaland were performed at everything from the Raven Theatre and Lifeline on Chicago’s north side to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and more. It’s making was the subject of a feature in The Atlantic and a documentary called My Muthaland which won a regional Emmy. The play is about reconciling pride in one’s heritage with being subjected to the very worst aspects in that culture, and after receiving so much attention, the show absolutely lives up to its expectations.

In 2009, Gandhi received word that her younger brother had agreed to an arranged marriage while visiting India. This befuddled her since they are first-generation Americans and had always rebuffed their parents’ efforts to get them to embrace that custom. Gandhi is a faithful Jain who speaks Gujarati and had enjoyed family trips to India before, but she found traditional attitudes toward sex and romance to be the most problematic aspect of her upbringing. Nonetheless, after learning her brother was okay with the match, and facing this reminder that she was nearly at the end of her fertile years with no prospective husband in sight, she decided to go to India in search of her own spiritual awakening. She brought along with her a copy of Eat, Pray, Love and yoga instructions, eagerly anticipating meeting her destiny in Bollywood rom-com style.

What ended up happening was something very different and horrible. But while the sexual assault Gandhi suffered naturally has a very prominent place in the show, her message is that it exists alongside other aspects of her life and heritage. Over the course of ninety minutes, Gandhi deftly mixes horror with levity and beauty, creating a rich portrait of herself as teenager, a theatre student, and a growing young actress. Director Heidi Stillman worked closely with her for years to craft a piece which is emotionally authentic throughout as Gandhi switches characters between herself and others. By the end, it is easy to feel like we know not only her, but also her parents, and how their lives in each country are intertwined.

Pulling off any one-person show, let alone one which requires such honesty about things that are deeply personal, requires an incredible amount of technical and physical finesse. Gandhi had Lanise Antione Shelly as her voice and movement coach, as well as Anu Bhatt as a co-choreographer. With just an accent and some gestures with her left hand, she embodies each of her parents as fully-formed and separate personalities. From their first appearance, we understand them to be deeply loving, albeit somewhat overbearing, and her relationship with them winds up being the heart of the play. Her description of an incident involving a vibrator is as hilarious as it is cringe-inducing and their acceptance of her acting career, to name just one thing they unexpectedly had to adjust to, is heart-warming. It is fitting that a play about heritage should so strongly foreground the parent-child relationship, especially when the relationship is one between responsible adults who are still learning from each other. Muthaland is a story that everybody in America who is aware of what they’ve chosen to keep from their ancestors’ culture can identify with in some way, and in refreshing contrast to a lot of other plays which make up the American theatre scene, it shows us what happens when a family we can admire encounters a crisis.

Highly Recommended

Muthaland is performed at the 16th Street Theater in the basement of the Berwyn Cultural Center, 6420 16th St, Berwyn, Illinois. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays at 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm through October 7. Tickets are $18-22, free parking is available in the lot at 16th St and Gunderson. Visit 16thstreettheater.org.

Published in Theatre in Review
Sunday, 18 September 2016 18:40

Carroll Gardens Grows Heavy with Plot

Well-to-do friends clashing over hidden resentments and jealousies while dining is a common scenario in the contemporary American theatre. Donald Margulies won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000 for Dinner with Friends, which focused on romantic entanglements, and Ayad Akhtar won in 2013 for Disgraced, which also addressed issues of Islam-inspired and anti-Islamic prejudice. To wrap up a year of smash-hits, the 16th Street Theater is producing the world premiere of A. Zell Williams’s Carroll Gardens, a “comedy” of the same genre which is about an interracial childhood friendship in working-class Stockton, and how it changes when one of the parties becomes a New York creative professional. Williams commented that theatre is bereft of the experience of today’s young African-Americans, and perhaps in an attempt to compensate for not seeing his concerns addressed elsewhere, he overloads his play with plot points, and exposition. However, he also has a very strong director in Ann Filmer, the 16th Street Theater’s artistic director, and a more than capable cast.

The story begins in 1993, when Davis (played as a child by Davu Smith) is visiting the home of Robby (played as a child by Rowan Moxley) for the first time. Robby is new to town and doesn’t have many friends yet, but he just made one in Davis by beating up his bully. Davis isn’t sure what to make of Robby: though they are only ten, Robby’s deceased mother forced him to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and he uses terms such as “cultural appropriation,” yet Robby, who is white, totally fails to recognize what the other kids mean by calling Davis an “oreo” and thinks ending feuds is as simple as telling his adversaries he doesn’t feel like fighting anymore. Still, they bond by introducing each other to Nirvana and The Coup, and though Davis is bemused by Robby, they genuinely like each other.

Flash forward to Davis’s thirtieth birthday, and things are no longer so warm. Davis (Gregory Geffard) hasn’t responded to any of Robby’s attempts to contact him in years, and Robby (Andy Lutz) mostly stopped trying until right before announcing that he will be visiting Davis’s new apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. While Davis is now an up-and-coming screenwriter, Robby still dresses like a teenager, apparently has no occupation other than selling weed, and still spouts leftist dogma. Davis’s girlfriend, image-conscious Pilates instructor Quinlan (Alex Fisher), does not care for Robby’s uncouthness, and Davis is getting irritated with him, too, when a confluence of events reminds him of how strangled he feels by the upper-class liberalism, trendiness, and materialism of his new environment. Quinlan genuinely loves him, and Robby’s jealous interference in their lives prompts more than just a culture clash, but on the eve of his total transition into adulthood, Davis is forced to ask himself what he truly wants.

There is another couple present who Davis and Quinlan are friends with. Deepti (Minita Gandhi, Leena Kurishingal later in the run) is an Indian-American OB-GYN and the kind of person who thinks declaring “you can tell that injera bread was created to go with lambs raised on African grass” could be anything other than obnoxious. Her boyfriend and Davis’s director, Jamie (Brian J. Hurst), is a politically correct conscious-raising-type who somehow manages to say something casually racist with every breath, and Davis suspects he has outgrown him, too. Williams has drawn his characters in great detail, and Filmer chose well in casting actors who pick up all the details he supplies them with. As the child Davis, Smith’s incredulity at Moxley’s Robby is adorable, and as the adult Robby, Lutz’s clumsy attempts to get along with Quinlan’s Fisher are hilariously uncomfortable.

 

The problem with Carroll Gardens is that Williams creates too many complications. Davis must not only decide whether it is possible to continue his relationship with Robby, but also whether he wants to continue on with Quinlan and Brian, all for different reasons. While it is understandable for Williams to want to put him under pressure, the defining traits of each character are hammered on a few too many times. Carroll Gardens does, however, have two saving graces. The first is that, in Geffard’s hands, Davis does not come across as weak, but as disillusioned and somewhat disappointed. The script’s other strength is that Quinlan is a fully-developed, sympathetic character, who has her own concerns about their new lifestyle. Fisher captures a great deal of conflict and nuance in her performance, and is able to wrest an equal position in the play to Geffard and Lutz. Joanna Iwanicka has supplied the 16th St with another fine, naturalistic set, which, with just a few touches, suggests a converted space being occupied by people whose income is being almost entirely eaten up by their rent. Would that Williams had left just a few more details to his other collaborators, but what he has written is respectable, and the inaugural production is an ideal telling of the story.

Recommended

Playing through October 15 at the 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th Street, Berwyn, Illinois. Running time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20, with discounts for Berwyn residents and groups. Free parking is provided in the lot at 16th and Gunderson.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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