The uniforms of home on faraway grass in the funny, moving The Men in White

Chanakya Mukherjee & John Chou. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

Factory Theatre opens its 49th season with Dora award-winning playwright Anosh Irani’s funny and moving The Men in White, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Miquelon Rodriguez. Set in both India and Canada, a struggling Vancouver cricket team needs a miracle to put an end to a humiliating losing streak—and one team member’s little brother back home might be just the ticket. Now, the team just needs to agree on the plan and find a way to get him over from Mumbai.

Taken in as a child by family friend Baba (Huse Madhavji, who fellow Saving Hope fans will recognize as neurosurgeon Dr. Shahir Hamza) along with his older brother Abdul following the death of their parents, 18-year-old Hasan (Chanakya Mukherjee) works as a chicken cutter in Baba’s shop in the Dongri neighbourhood of Mumbai. As he executes and dismembers chickens, his heart and mind are set on becoming a professional cricket player and capturing the attention of pretty local pre-med student and customer Haseena (Tahirih Vejdani). These dreams are a stretch, as he’s a relatively uneducated working class orphan living and working in a tough neighbourhood—and his extreme awkwardness has him constantly putting his foot in his mouth around Haseena. On top of that, Haseena has also caught the eye of a cool motorcycle dude with ties to a local gang.

MeninWhite-Tahirih Vejdani, Chanakya Mukherjee, Huse Madhavji photo by Jospeh Michael Photography
Tahirih Vejdani, Chanakya Mukherjee & Huse Madhavji. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

Over in Vancouver, Hasan’s older brother Abdul (Gugun Deep Singh), who cooks for and lives in the back of an Indian restaurant, has found home with a local cricket team comprised mainly of South Asians. But the team can’t seem to shake a brutal losing streak, and on top of struggling to motivate his players—including on and off the field player Ram (Farid Yazdani) and the athletically challenged Sam (John Chou)—team captain Randy (Sugith Varughese) also finds himself navigating Doc’s (Cyrus Faird) anti-Muslim sentiment as he referees Doc’s outbursts against Abdul. And when Abdul suggests bringing Hasan, a gifted bowler and batter, over to save the team’s tarnished reputation, the team is faced with internal debate and the problem of sorting out how they’d even accomplish such a plan.

As Hasan and the team are both faced with being labelled “losers,” having him join the team appears to be a match made in heaven; and the prospect of having a chance to win for a change injects some much needed excitement and confidence all around. It also makes for some deep soul-searching about religious and cultural tensions, and why they play cricket, as confessions and revelations of hard realities emerge. Some play cricket because it reminds them of home, some play to forget, some play to belong, and some play to rise above the dullness of a workaday life and tragic lived experience.

Stand-up work from the ensemble in this story of family, life and belonging. Madhavji is a laugh riot as the testy Baba; and though he’s highly adept at mercilessly teasing Hasan, Baba has a good, loving heart under that cranky exterior. Mukherjee’s Hasan is an adorkable combination of gritty determination and hopeless awkwardness; particularly in his scenes with Vejdani, whose intelligent and sharp-witted Haseena is matched by her equally barbed retorts—Haseena is no wilting flower and suffers no fools.

MeninWhite-JohnChou, SugithVarughese, CyrusFaird, FaridYazdani, GugunDeepSingh photo by Jospeh Michael Photography
John Chou, Sugith Varughese, Cyrus Faird, Farid Yazdani & Gugun Deep Singh. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

The men in the locker room walk a fine line between comedy and tragedy as they deal with the underlying personal histories they bring to the struggling team. Yazdani’s devil-may-care bro/ ladies’ man Ram and Chou’s dim-witted, movie aficionado Sam make for some great comic relief. There’s more than meets the eye with these two, as Ram has government connections to assist with bringing Hasan over; and Chou, who’s Chinese and therefore an unlikely cricketer, got into cricket because of an Indian childhood BFF. Singh’s nicely understated performance as the unassuming Abdul mines the fading hopes and dreams of a man who left his home in search of a better life for himself and his brother—only to find broken promises and more hardship. Faird’s tightly wound, resentful, white-collar professional Doc is a perfect foil to Abdul; Doc’s animosity is underpinned by a tragic history and broken heart—and he has more in common with his perceived enemy than he would care to admit. All held together by Varughese’s aggravated but good-natured team captain Randy; despite the idle threats, Randy loves this Bad News Bears bunch of guys—and he has ghosts of his own to deal with.

With shouts to Steve Lucas’s clever and effectively designed set, which neatly splits the stage into Baba’s chicken shop and the locker room. The bamboo and chicken wire of the shop merge with the metal poles and chicken wire (standing in for chain link) of the cricket pitch locker room; Astroturf is incorporated into the checkerboard floor and a projected map of the world dominates up centre.

The Men in White continues in the Factory Theatre mainspace until November 4; advance tickets available online, or by calling 416-504-9971 or visiting the box office (125 Bathurst Street, Adelaide Street Entrance).

 

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Delight & devastation in deeply moving, insightful & brutally honest Pyaasa

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Anusree Roy as Chaya in Pyaasa – photo by Michael Cooper

“Life isn’t easy, Chaya … but you have to believe in it.”Pyassa, by Anusree Roy

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) opened its remount of Anusree Roy’s Dora award-winning one-woman play Pyaasa in the Backspace last night. Directed by Thomas Morgan Jones and originally produced in 2008 to sold-out houses, the Pyaasa remount is part of TPM’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Play Series, which will feature one remount per season until 2018.

Born into an Untouchable family, 11-year-old Chaya lives with her parents in a leaky tent under a bridge; both parents work cleaning toilets – her mother in people’s homes and her father at the local police station. Longing to go to school, Chaya works on her times tables while her mother paves the path for her future. A higher caste servant in a home where her mother works has a son who runs a tea shop, and Chaya’s mother secures a position for her there: cleaning tea cups in exchange for tea and some food – a move that proves to be life-changing for Chaya.

Roy is spell-binding, shifting adeptly between characters, her posture and facial expressions specific and unmistakable for each character she assumes. Chaya’s mother, bent from work; submissive and ingratiating with higher caste persons, but a feisty fighter for her family and in the long line for the communal water pump. The haughty higher caste servant, clenched and tight-lipped – and wary of being touched even by the shadow of an Untouchable. As Chaya, Roy is a delight; a bubbly, bright and inquisitive tween with an unquenchable thirst (“pyaasa” means “thirsty” in Hindi and “Chaya” means “shadow”) for education as she soaks up all she can from borrowed or second-hand books. And though she’d give anything to go to school, she knows that her family needs her as a household earner – and that employment opportunities are a precarious treasure. So she goes to work at the tea shop. And her life will never be the same.

It was particularly fitting to see Pyaasa on International Women’s Day. The play serves as a stark reminder that, as far as human rights – and women’s rights in particular – have come in some parts of the world, others aren’t so lucky. In Chaya’s case, the oppression is deeply rooted in Hindu society, despite India’s modern-day laws abolishing Untouchability and forbidding discrimination based on caste – and for a young girl in this environment, the situation is all the more dire. The words from Chaya’s mother, noted at the beginning of this post, serve as both powerful advice and understatement, given the extreme, harsh realities of their lives as female Untouchables.

Delight and devastation in the deeply moving, insightful and brutally honest Pyaasa.

Pyaasa runs until March 27 in the TPM Backspace; advanced booking is strongly recommended. You can purchase tix in advance online  or by calling the box office: 416-504-7529.

In the meantime, take a look behind the scenes of Pyassa: