As a playwright, there’s something both inspiring and depressing about seeing a really good production of a really good new play.
Inspiring is probably obvious—wow, look what words can do, look what actors can do, look what live theater can still do when you gather a bunch of people in the dark to hear a story told well.
Depressing? Well, as much as you try to live by that age-old advice of not comparing yourself to others and being your own measure of your talent and success, those old demons envy and jealousy creep in any chance they get. Look at that amazing thing happening over there. Why can’t I have that? Why don’t I have that? The feeling passes, if you’re vigilant, but you’d be less than honest if you said it wasn’t there. It’s a bad idea to compare yourself to other people because someone’s always doing “better,” someone’s always doing “worse.” It’s a false comparison, apples and oranges, etc.
“Back me up, gentlemen. Being the oppressor is fun.”
Seeing the trilogy of new plays from Aditi Kapil produced by Mixed Blood Theatre, Displaced Hindu Gods, all in one marathon sitting? Take those warring feelings of inspiration and depression; now double them; now almost triple them. Kapil and Mixed Blood and Displaced Hindu Gods had my writer spirits soaring and crashing all night long. There are two-and-a-half amazing plays here. That last half of a play is bewildering, but it doesn’t undo the enormous amount of good going on the rest of the night.
“The rest are all in black and white, unless they’re bleeding.”
It should be noted that you’re not required to strap in for all three plays at once. Audiences will certainly get some added bonuses from that prolonged experience, but each of the three plays is a full story in its own right, not dependent on the others for understanding or satisfaction. In fact, there are pluses to taking them one at a time as well, not the least of which is that you have time to let each story and its characters marinate and roll around in your head and heart a little before you dive in for more. You’ll definitely want to see more than one, and even though my heart is a little divided on one of these plays, I’d still recommend seeing all three. To be honest, I’d kind of like to see all three again myself, each for its own reason. But it’s high time I got specific, so…
“If I owned all of this, I’d never leave.”
BRAHMAN/I: A ONE-HIJRA STAND-UP COMEDY SHOW
In Displaced Hindu Gods, playwright Kapil takes the trinity of Hindu deities Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva and spins a different tale in a different genre around each one of them. In Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show (directed by Jeremy Cohen), the hermaphrodite god, both woman and man at once, takes the stage as a stand-up comedian, sharing a rapid-fire litany of jokes centered on the difficulties of what it was like growing up first as a boy, and later as a girl, to neither of whom the high school years are kind. Defiantly embracing both sides of her/himself as Brahman/i grows into adulthood, the stand-up act becomes a hilarious manifesto. Then suddenly blossoming out of this anger is an unexpected love story.
“You Westerners with your true love and your feelings and your happiness.”
Kapil herself alternates performing the role of Brahman/i with Debargo Sanyal. Impressed still more now with Kapil’s apparently limitless skills seeing her on stage opening night, I’d be curious to see the play again with Sanyal as well, just to see what the physical presence of a man in the role does to the dynamics of the relationship both with the audience and Brahman/i’s electric-guitar-playing straight man J (Peter Christian Hansen).
“I may have a penis and a vagina but at least I’m not this moron.”
An extended monologue is difficult enough to compose in such a way that it remains compelling throughout. Turning that monologue into a comedy routine that’s actually funny—and about something—that’s all the more daunting a task. The fact that Kapil not only pulls off the trick on the page but also can present it in person onstage makes it all the more amazing.
“Anytime, my intersexual friend.”
In The Chronicles of Kalki (directed by Bruce A. Young), a young girl named Kalki (Lipica Shah) suddenly appears right in the middle of the growing pains of two disaffected fellow high school students portrayed by Cat Brindisi and Joetta Wright, turning both their lives inside out. The story is told in flashbacks prompted by the interrogations of the two girls by a cop (Andrew Guilarte) trying to find Kalki, who has now just as quickly vanished from the scene, leaving violence and chaos in her wake.
“The world is full of dangers. I want you untouched.”
Just when you think you’ve peeled back all the layers of this story and these performances, there’s another layer waiting to surprise you. On one level, Kalki is most definitely contributing to the delinquency of minors. On another level, Kalki seems to have been just what these girls needed in order to grow up stronger. Is Kalki the final avatar of Vishnu? It sure would be nice to think so. Chronicles is set in a very real, and sometimes heartless, modern-day America, but there’s a strong vein of the supernatural running through the story that strangely doesn’t seem out of place at all. Another deft juggling act on the page by the writer, delivered with real passion, pain and humor on stage by the ensemble.
“Hey, thanks for saving me and everyone I know—but what the fuck are you wearing?”
Shah’s Kalki gets all the naughty fun to play with in her character, and comes off as a frightening force of nature not to be messed with. The real bleeding, beating, bruised heart of this story, though, is Brindisi’s character. She, too, serves up a dark sense of humor, but it’s Brindisi’s unstinting look inside the soul of a girl being pushed too fast into being a woman that really knocks the breath out of you. Director Young and this script have pulled things out of Brindisi that were only hinted at before in her leading roles in musical events like Spring Awakening and Hair. Seeing Brindisi in The Chronicles of Kalki is the kind of thing that’s going to make other writers want to write still more challenging material for her. We’re all a little envious that Kapil got her first.
“She was the most amazing person that ever happened to me. I guess I wanted to share her.”
The third play, Shiv (directed by Risa Brainin), I’m still struggling to wrap my head around. First, though, I have to give some applause to two actors who had me completely fooled. There should be no excuse. I had the program in front of me, I read it. I’ve seen plenty of theater where actors played multiple roles but I was always able to spot them. I appreciated their skill at becoming several different people right before my eyes, but I was never tricked into thinking that I wasn’t still watching the same actor. In Shiv, however, Lipica Shah is back again, and so is Andrew Guilarte, and I didn’t recognize either of them.
“I’m watching this TV show.” (Star Trek)
“What’s it about?”
Yes, the director is different, the characters are different, the storytelling style is different, but Lipica Shah as Shiv and Andrew Guilarte as her father Bapu were not the same people who just played Kalki and the cop right in front of me just a half-hour before. They were completely transformed. One could be forgiven maybe for not connecting the actress sporting the scrappy street punk look of Kalki with the unadorned almost ethereal beauty of Shiv. Kalki’s violent streak was the polar opposite of Shiv’s patient, slow-burning revenge plot, but Shah makes them both look easy. So easy, I thought it was two different actresses.
“This is all I have.”
Meanwhile, as the cop Guilarte wasn’t hiding under anything more complicated than a pair of eyeglasses. Yet he flipped from Clark Kent to superdad without a phone booth in sight. Bapu could have devolved into a generic immigrant, his spirit ground down by his new home country of America being unwilling to recognize his value, since it was nurtured and validated in another part of the world; but Kapil’s writing and Guilarte’s performance are much more subtle and specific than that. Bapu works hard to give his daughter Shiv an appreciation of America, while also maintaining a respect for the heritage of the place where she was born. He also provides her with a sense of wonder and possibility, so it is hard for both her and the audience to watch the sparkle of his personality get tarnished by the hard uphill climb of needing to start life (and struggle for recognition) all over again.
“I’m not eight, and you’re not writing.”
While the story of Shiv and her father unfolds in what later are discovered to be flashbacks, alternating scenes find Shiv infiltrating the well-to-do world of white privilege, landing a job maintaining the lake home property of a professor of literature (Nathaniel Fuller). She also infiltrates the family by striking up a dalliance with the professor’s nephew Gerard (Peter Christian Hansen, ditching the flannel shirt and woolen cap of J in Brahman/i for, well, often no shirt at all at the lake house). None of this seems calculated, at first. Shiv just seems very driven to succeed at her job, and her off-duty emotions for Gerard seem genuine. It’s what’s driving her, though, that leads to a confrontation with the professor in the latter half of the play. It’s an intriguing exploration not just of a clash of cultures, but a look at economic as well as cultural inequality: who has the money and the power, why do they have it, how do they use it, what does that leave for the rest of us, how does anyone fight the status quo?
“The man who is in charge of everything—what stories are told, and not told.”
Here’s where I feel like I missed something, like maybe I was watching the play from the wrong angle all along. Now I was having a hard time making the shift to where the play wanted to really take me. The play kept ending, and then kept going. The fact that the character of Shiv and the play itself seem to both come unglued at the same time makes me think the part of the play that baffles me must be deliberate. What comes before is so skillful at just barely skirting the edges of cliche and stereotype and showing me something more complex that I have to believe the same level of skill is being applied to the latter part of the play. Right now, it seems to me to make its point brilliantly, and get me to think about things I hadn’t considered before, and then continues when it doesn’t seem to need to. For me, the play could have ended ten to fifteen minutes earlier and had the same if not greater impact. The example of the rest of the evening, and even the first part of the play itself, makes me question my trouble with the ending of Shiv—but it’s a world premiere, so maybe this play is still getting tinkered with. Maybe the lessons learned in this first production help it reach its final form.
“Are we not magical?”
See any one of Displaced Hindu Gods. Better yet, see all of them—together, spaced out over several nights, doesn’t matter. You should see these plays. Great writing, great direction, great design, great acting. All three stories are very different in style and tone, but they all have a smart sense of humor driving them, which makes them entertaining as well as thought-provoking. I’d say it’s a great immersion in another culture, but let’s face it, at this point it’s part of American culture; so it’s high time we got to know ourselves a little better. The Displaced Hindu Gods trilogy is a great way to do that.
(Thanks, Aditi Kapil. I’m going to go write a play now. Or two. Or three.)
Read Sheila Regan on the founding of Mixed Blood Theatre in 1976.
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.