Family, transition & mental illness in the honest, engaging, moving Little Pretty and The Exceptional

Sugith Varughese & Farah Merani in Little Pretty and The Exceptional—photo by Joseph Michael

 

A South Asian Canadian family navigates a career transition, personal milestones and mental illness in Anusree Roy’s Little Pretty and The Exceptional, directed by Brendan Healy, assisted by Ryan G. Hinds—running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace.

Little Pretty and The Exceptional takes us to Toronto’s Little India, to a store on Gerrard St. East where Singh family patriarch Dilpreet (Sugith Varughese) is preparing for the Canada Day grand opening of his family-run sari shop with the help of his daughters Simran (Farah Merani) and Jasmeet (Shruti Kothari). To his chagrin, Jasmeet has also enlisted the help of her boyfriend Iyar (Shelly Antony).

The entire Singh household is running on the stress and excitement of major life events: Dilpreet is navigating a career transition, going from shop employee to shop owner; Simran, who wants to be a human rights lawyer, also works at the library and is awaiting her LSAT results; and Jasmeet is preparing for prom and gunning for the coveted Prom Queen crown.

When Simran’s LSAT score is lower than she needs to get into Osgoode, she begins a downward spiral into extreme tension and anxiety. As she struggles to sign up for LSAT prep classes and reschedule the test, her ongoing nightmares and headaches are getting worse, and she’s beginning to hallucinate. And when she goes missing one night, returning with a story of seeing her dead mother, her father wants to take her to the doctor, but her sister thinks she just needs time and space to relax.

Haunted by their shared history of a wife and mother who struggled with mental illness, and with the grand opening just days away, the Singhs are torn about what to do for Simran—but as her visual and auditory hallucinations worsen, even Jasmeet realizes they must seek medical intervention. In the end, as much as the Singhs strive for normalcy as they open the shop, things will never be the same again.

Lovely work from the cast in this poignant, sometimes funny, family story. Varughese gives a moving and powerful performance as Dilpreet; a loveable, outspoken and somewhat stubborn man with a wry wit, Dilpreet is a middle-aged father bravely shifting from employee to entrepreneur. An immigrant who came to Canada to make a better life for his family, the cultural and generational divides with his daughters make for some fun comedic moments of communication and butting heads. Merani is heartbreaking as Simran; the ‘smart one’ of the Singh sisters, Simran’s decent into Schizophrenia is devastating to watch—from her perspective as a strong academic student aiming for law school, and the varied responses from her family.

Shruti Kothari and Shelly Antony in Little Pretty and The Exceptional - Joseph Michael Photography (1)
Shruti Kothari & Shelly Antony in Little Pretty and The Exceptional—photo by Joseph Michael

Kothari is a firework as Jasmeet, the ‘pretty one;’ a young woman of boundless energy and a touch of vanity, Jasmeet’s a high school senior who wants to be a fashion designer. Outspoken like her father, she’s a take-charge gal—but when it comes to her big sis, she goes into denial over the increasingly erratic behaviour. Haunted by vague memories of their “crazy” mother, Jasmeet doesn’t want to consider that Simran may need psychiatric help. Antony is a delight as Iyar; high-energy, laid back and supportive, Iyar has no trouble gently calling Jasmeet on her attitude towards Simran’s situation. And though he’s not technically a member of the Singh family, he does great service assisting with the store opening and overall emotional support.

With shouts to the design team for their work in creating the lush, evocative space—filled with rich, gorgeous fabrics, and music and lighting that goes from bright and lively to malevolent: Samantha Brown (set, props), Chantelle Laliberte (costumes), André du Toit (lighting) and Richard Feren (composer and sound).

Family, transition and mental illness in the honest, engaging, moving Little Pretty and The Exceptional.

Little Pretty and The Exceptional continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace till April 30. Advance tix available online or by calling 416-504-9971.

Check out Anusree Roy’s beautiful, honest and personal piece on mental health in Intermission Magazine.

Compelling, poetic, unflinchingly honest snapshots of working class people in Of Being Underground & Moving Backwards

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Heather Babcock at the launch for Of Being Underground & Moving Backwards – photo by Lizzie Violet

Where do the words
Interrupted
Of the working class people go?
Lost somewhere within their time
Interrupted.

This is the prologue to Heather Babcock’s chapbook Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards, a collection of short stories published by DevilHousePress.

A compelling and vividly detailed collection of works, Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards opens with “Break,” a first-person narrative from the point of view of a heart-broken, over-worked waitress soldiering on through her shift to pay the bills – and finding emotional release in an unexpected moment of solitude during a much deserved break.

The workaday characters – Wilbur and Christina in “Half Off” and Betty in “The Trees Turned to Glass” – struggle through harsh and unfair circumstances, doing the best they can to survive as they scramble to eke out a living, and find snatches of happiness and moments of ecstasy when they can. Constantly faced with judgement in the present and haunted by ghosts of the past, daydreams and fantasies become a welcome escape – an oasis from the dull, grey hopelessness of a world that sees them as disposable. And in “Rebecca,” we get a portrait of one of those judgemental, comfortably smug points of view, as wealthy record producer Conrad washes his hands of responsibility for someone he supposedly loved once.

There is beauty and poetry, grit and defiance, especially in the stories of family and loss. Jake in “The Dancing Bear,” escaping from his brother’s hospital bedside and into a local bar and a pretty woman. First-person memories of a mother, a dead sister and flowers in “Marking Words” and the title story “Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards;” the sharp edges of family history smoothed by nostalgic recollections made bittersweet by family tragedy.

And the closing story “Wind Pudding and Wagon Tracks” is parable-like in its insight into the human spirit; set in a place where everyone is treated equally and all are given the same choice – only each comes from different places with which to make that choice.

Of Being Underground and Moving Backwards is a beautiful collection of unflinchingly honest snapshots of otherwise invisible working class people; their everyday drudgery finding momentary respite in after-hours second lives, rich fantasy worlds, moments of recollection and in the imperfect love of equally lost souls.

You can find more of Babcock’s work online on her website. Babcock performs regularly around the city reading her work; coming up, she’ll be performing with Neil Traynor at I Got You Babe! And Evening of Poetry and Music with Heather and Neil at Hirut Restaurant on March 19 at 8 p.m.

Toronto Fringe: A delightful & moving journey across time & space, love & family in Rukmini’s Gold

rukminis_goldWent to see the Rukmini’s Gold, by Radha S. Menon – the winner of the 2015 Toronto Fringe new play contest – directed by Wes Berger and running at the Factory Theatre Mainspace.

An old woman (Rukmini, played by Dia Frid) in a white sari waits alone on a bench at a train station. Clutching a jewelry case and carrying a single suitcase, she reminisces about her life and family. A 12-year-old girl (Maya Huliyappa-Menon) joins her, and she is carried off on a journey of faces, memories and visions of the future. The hardships, happiness and lives of Rukmini’s family play out over the course of many years, across several countries – all bound by the precious family necklaces and bangles she leaves them to remember her by.

Really nice work from this ensemble, most of whom (except for Frid) play multiple characters: Frid, Huliyappa-Menon, Tony Sciara, Vivek Hariharan, Rishma Malik-Scott, Ellora Patnaik and Brittany Miranda, supported by understudy Sindhuri Nandhakumar. The scenes between Rukmini and the girl are particularly compelling and bookend the play nicely. Frid’s Rukmini plays up her age – her “condition” – but she is sharp as a tack and decidedly feisty. Huliyappa-Menon’s girl is precocious, energetic and bright, full of playful mischief. Who she is, I’ll leave for you to decide for yourselves – so you’ll have to go see this.

With shouts to the beautiful, evocative – and haunting – work of costume/props designer Kelly Wolf and sound designer Nicholas Walsh.

Rukmini’s Gold is a delightful, moving journey across time and space, love and family.

Rukmini’s Gold has one more performance at the Factory Theatre Mainspace: Sun, July 12 at 7:00 p.m.

Toronto Fringe: Powerful & thoughtful exploration of family & mental illness in Hanger

hanger-web-250x250Saw yet another marvelous two-hander at Toronto Fringe last night: Kildare Company’s Hanger, written by Hilary McCormack and directed by Joshua Stodart (both also on the Ale House Theatre Co. Twelfe Night, or what you will team) – running at St. Vladimir Theatre.

Acceptance and denial of mental health issues come to the forefront as sisters Liz (McCormack) and Kat (Tennille Read) find their relationship at stake over attitudes about mental illness and perceptions of events from their family history. The writing is structured in such a way that you can’t tell if what you’re seeing is a flashback scene or a hallucination – which has the disturbing effect of putting you inside the point of view of an individual in crisis.

Lovely, poignant performances from McCormack and Read; truthful, committed and on the edge as these sisters grapple with inner and outer conflicts – torn between the love and bond of sisters, and being unable to connect or be on the same page of their family history. McCormack’s Liz is the shit-disturber of the family, calling out their concealed troubles; stubborn and determined, she faces the issues but at a very high cost to herself. Can she find a way out? As Kat, Read is the peacemaker and protector; in denial, and vacillating between drive and anxiety in a see-saw of emotion. Can she find it inside her to admit what’s really going on?

Hanger is a powerful and thoughtful exploration of family relationships in the face of mental illness, featuring moving performances from McCormack and Read.

Hanger has one more performance at St. Vladimir: today (Sat, July 11) at 5:15 p.m. Get out to see this – it’s an important topic.