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.

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SummerWorks: A powerful, unforgettable & unique theatrical experience in The Container

HERO-The-Container-Publicity-Image-Colour-smallBefore we are led into the metal shipping container, some of us wonder out loud about the heat, the dark, the air. The closeness of others. And we’re just the audience for Clare Bayley’s play The Container, directed by Zachary Florence and running at the Theatre Centre back lot during SummerWorks.

Once inside, we sit on stacks of narrow palettes that line the inner edges of the container, light cushions making the seating more comfortable. We’d each been given a bottle of water and told that if we needed to leave the container, for whatever reason, to stand up or raise a hand – and one of the actors would escort us out. Four people enter: two men and two women. The door of the container slams shut with a loud metallic boom and we are thrown into darkness. Then, one by one, small lights appear – the four actors have flashlights – but the atmosphere is tense with fear and uncertainty, audience placed in extreme close-up with a simulated refugee smuggling operation.

And the journey unfolds, another refugee enters: a woman, who is sick to her stomach shortly after she arrives, and another woman uses the makeshift latrine in the corner, her young companion holding up a scarf to give her some privacy. Although not sensed directly, the audience is reminded of the sickening smells that would be accompanying such a journey.

The cast does a remarkable job of with the complex range of emotions in such a situation. These characters can’t stay in their home country, and must risk travelling to England illegally, paying thousands of dollars, and putting their lives and futures into the hands of men they don’t know. Desperation. Fear. Hope. Despair. Love. Distrust. Kindness. Cruelty. Each has a story, a reason, a goal. Fatima (played with guile and strength by Bola Aiyeola) and Asha (Ubah Guled, bringing a kind, tender and hopeful young woman), fleeing life in a refugee camp. Jemal (played with strength and conviction by Adriano Sobretodo Jr.) longs to be united with his young family, while former businessman Ahmad (played with a nice layering of fierceness and moral frailty by Sugith Varughese) worries about his financial future and that of his children. The newcomer to the group, Mariam (played with a lovely balance of vulnerability and courage by Lara Arabian), is a recent widow and has a secret – her illness is not what it seems. And Constantine Karzis is equal parts seductive and snake-like as the Agent/middleman to this mission of refugee smuggling.

We got the mildest taste of what it would be like to be a refugee being smuggled across borders this way – but we knew, in this simulated environment, that freedom was 60 minutes away. And we heaved a collective sigh of relief as we got back outside into the sunshine and cool breeze.

Winner of the 2007 Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, The Container is a powerful, unforgettable and unique theatrical experience.

The Container runs until Sun, Aug 17 – performance dates include two shows per day; check for details here.

For more info on refugee protection, visit the sites of: Canadian Council of Refugees, Romero House or The UN Refugee Agency (thanks to The Container folks for providing this info in the program).