nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 7, 2005
The subtitle of Gehri Dosti is "5 Short Plays with a South Asian Bent ;-)"; that final winking emoticon is meant to signify the pun on "bent," i.e., that all of these plays are concerned with the relatively invisible (taboo?) subject of same-sex love among South Asians. Its author, Paul Knox, has steered into this territory before—his play Kalighat, which premiered last year, brought a few gay men (one of them an Indian) into one of Mother Teresa's homes for the dying and destitute. These five plays are even bolder than that one in exploring not only the expression of love between men or women but also the active denial/repression of such love in countries and cultures that are home to a huge number of the world's population. As a plea for attention, Gehri Dosti packs a very powerful wallop indeed.
The evening begins with its shortest, slightest piece, Loving Japamala. It's also the only one that doesn't take place on the Indian subcontinent, set instead in a convent in the South Bronx, where a Puerto Rican man named Tommy helps out the nuns once a week in the kitchen. On this particular Monday, Sister Japamala is about to return to her native India, and has come to say goodbye to Tommy, with whom she believes she has fallen in love (hence her dismissal from this convent). Tommy is gay, and works as a go-go dancer; he tries to explain some of this to Sister Japamala, though he doesn't really finish. This play—a vignette, really—is more about different kinds of love that can exist between people than the issues of sexuality that pervade the remainder of the program.
The next piece, Eating Jain, tackles such issues head-on. Set in a compartment of a train on its way from Calcutta to Puri, it begins with two naked men sleeping in each other's arms, presumably after having made love. One of the men, Mahvi, is an Indian and a follower of the Jain religion; the other, Bobby, is a New Yorker. Their relationship has been intermittent, brief, but intense, and now Bobby is accompanying Mahvi to his home where he thinks he's going to "meet the in-laws." But Mahvi has no intention of revealing his sexual orientation to his family, or, we discover, of shirking his duty to get married and have sons. Bobby, bound by western mores, has the idea that he and Mahvi can be in love and live together as a couple; Mahvi can't or won't turn away from his own traditions, feelings of love and/or lust notwithstanding. The power of this play comes from Knox's refusal to judge or take sides: Eating Jain reveals the depth, complexity, and strength of cultural and religious barriers, even as it celebrates, with its lovely romantic opening tableau, the perfect possibility of pure love.
The tragic consequences of religious intolerance of homosexuality are exposed in I Am Mou, the final play before intermission. Structured as a series of overlapping monologues spoken by an upper-class woman, her husband, and their maidservant, I Am Mou lays bare the bored, unfulfilled life of the privileged wife in a loveless marriage. When she finds herself attracted to the maid, something awakens within her. But when the husband discovers the two women together in bed making love, her world explodes. The brutal ending isn't exactly a surprise but it nevertheless jolts us: prejudice against lesbians and gays is indeed institutionalized in lots of cultures and we need to be reminded of this.
The evening's most ambitious and affecting play comes next, after the break. Entitled Two Men in Shoulder Stand, it's told in poetic dialogue and a sequence of yoga movements and poses. Two men, Hasan and Sarath, are alone together on a beach on the Arabian Sea. One is Hindu, the other is Muslim. They are lovers. One is dying of AIDS. Knox explores here several kinds of oppression—of battling religions that are nevertheless united in their intolerance for gay love; of a terrible disease whose devastation is greater in a place where they are no resources available to battle it; of an outside, supposedly "enlightened" culture that is uninterested and uninvolved with the plights of gays or AIDS victims outside of their narrow world. All of this is set against the calm, intoxicating backdrop of yoga on a beautiful beach—Knox is nothing if not masterfully ironic.
Nearly as ambitious—and definitely more audacious—is Gehri Dosti's final piece, Tara Tara Didi. This light-hearted (but pointed) satire of Bollywood films brings the entire cast together (in multiple roles) to tell, in song, dance, and verse, the story of two mismatched couples who discover their true sexual natures while trying to complete a pair of arranged mail-order marriages. The boys end up together and the girls end up together, thanks to the machinations of a visiting band of eunuchs ("hijrahs") who had been hired to provide entertainment at the weddings. Knox has fun here sending up the conventions of Bollywood cinema and a good deal of more familiar western pop culture. By the end, somehow, everyone winds up dancing the hora.
Clocking in at 2-1/2 hours, Gehri Dosti makes for a very full evening. It certainly challenges its nine-member cast, not all of whom are completely up to all of the tasks (dancing, singing, advanced yoga, virtuosic acting) that they're called upon to undertake (on the other hand, they're all game and energetic, and they will learn and improve as they continue working on the plays). Standouts among the actors include Michael Ellis and Bobby Abid, who are excellent as the lovers in Eating Jain, and Brenden Varma and Abid, who get the style and spirit of the Bollywood parody exactly right. Knox's staging is simple and spare, with occasional interludes of movement used as transitions between the plays.