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:

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Magic, heart, comedy & truth in and out of love (again) in 52 Pick-up remount

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Playing one of the four rotating couples in the production, Ruth Goodwin & Alexander Crowther toss the deck into the air in 52 Pick-up

Tell me a story.
Real or made-up?
Both.
Happy or sad?
Both.

These are the opening lines of TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi’s 52 Pick-up – produced by the Howland Company, and directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Paolo Santalucia – setting the stage for a random, non-linear piece of two-handed storytelling about the beginning, middle and ending of a relationship. After delighting sold-out houses at last year’s Toronto Fringe, then going on to The Best of Fringe, the production is getting a remount at Fraser Studios.

52 Pick-up has a performance rotation of four couples: two guy/girl, one girl/girl and one guy/guy. I’d previously seen both guy/girl couples: real-life couple Hallie Seline/Cameron Laurie and Ruth Goodwin/Alexander Crowther. The remount features two new actors, replacing co-directors Ch’ng Lancaster and Santalucia, who both acted in the Fringe production: Llyandra Jones and Alexander Plouffe, who stepped in to play half of the same-sex couples (with Kristen Zaza and James Graham, respectively). I saw the girl/girl couple (Zaza and Jones) yesterday afternoon.

For those who haven’t seen 52 Pick-up, it goes something like this. At the top of the show, the relationship has already ended and the couple decide, together, to tell us their story. The order in which the story is told is dictated by the random selection from a deck of cards, tossed into the air, each card containing a word or phrase that defines the scene they’re about to play out for us.

So, between the four rotating couples and the random running order, you’ll never see the same story the same way twice – even with the same couple. The outcome can also result in some happy coincidences, like yesterday when the “Psychic” scene came right after a scene in which psychics were discussed. Each couple makes it clear that they’re telling us a story, winding in and out of scenes and returning to us, the cards on the floor and the box into which the discards go. Speaking directly to us – and like the “How do you know her?” scene – sometimes gently interacting with someone in the audience, the actors charm, engage and move us. It’s like hearing two friends talk about how they met, courted and gradually grew apart before breaking up – and even though the story is told out of order, your mind wants to put it together, like a puzzle, in linear format. And, like most break-ups, there isn’t necessarily a readily definable ‘why’ – and, in many cases, it’s about two people coming to realize that they just don’t fit together.

For those who have seen one of the guy/girl pairings, Zaza takes on the “girl” role and Jones the “guy.” In many respects, it would be more helpful to describe the couple as Person A and Person B. This is not about imposing heteronormative dynamics on the same-sex couples, it’s about showing two personality types come together, and the way the two succeed – or fail – to connect. Seeing a same-sex couple in this show, especially for those unfamiliar with such a relationship, highlights how romantic relationships aren’t so dependent on sex and gender as they are on personal character dynamics, lifestyle issues and wanting the same things from life.

Zaza and Jones have great chemistry, telling us the story of this couple with a playful sense of awkwardness, passion and romantic friction – with great comic timing and emotional connection. This couple is adorably awkward, earnest and committed, from the brief meet cute over the bladder health benefits of cranberry juice to the sniping over how to chop carrots – funny, moving and above all truthful. Jones brings a lovely bashful, soft butch quality to her laid back, home body character, while Zaza is the bubbly, assertive and outgoing femme – and we’re sad to see these two characters part.

52 Pick-up has all the magic, heart, comedy and truth of falling in and out of love. Now, if I can only work out my scheduling to see the guy/guy couple. Go see this – or go see this again. And again.

52 Pick-up continues at Fraser Studios until March 22. Seating is limited, so booking ahead is strongly recommended – you can do so online here (and see the full schedule and what couple is on when).