nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 4, 2005
Theatre reviewers—other audience members, too, I think—learn to approach with trepidation evenings of new short plays. So when one such evening turns out to be a consistent delight, professionally created and produced in every department, it's cause for real celebration. This turns out to be the very happy case with Desipina & Co.'s seven.11.2005, a terrifically accomplished and entertaining program of new short works—seven plays, each about eleven minutes long, each set in a convenience store.
Now it happens that Desipina is a theatre troupe dedicated to showcasing the work of the pan-Asian community, which ensures that seven.11.2005 is, in addition to the foregoing, thrillingly diverse in terms of ethnicity, creative contributors, and points of view. The result is a lively, exciting, interesting look at contemporary life, as seen from vantage points not typically assumed in so-called mainstream theatre.
The evening commences rather gently with Paris, by Anuvab Pal, in which an American Muslim of Indian descent wanders into a Parisian convenience store to buy some cigarettes, and winds up having a surprisingly intimate conversation with the seemingly haughty young French woman who works there. Pal looks at the kinds of assumptions people from different cultures make about each other, as well as the ways commonalities almost sneak up on people. It's a smart, sweet play that tackles big issues in a subtle manner.
The tone completely changes with Debargo Sanyal's hilarious S.A.M.O.S.A., in which a pair of misfit students at Mercer County Community College (MC-cubed) deal with their sci-fi obsessions. Mohammed ("Mo") has come up with the brilliant idea to found a new club on campus—South Asian Men Organizing Science-Fiction Adventures. And because his best pal Horace ("Ho"), who works in a convenience store, is Korean, he's added a special by-law that the one member of the club who doesn't have to be South Asian is the President's best friend. ("That is so smart of you, man," enthuses Ho.) Sanyal perfectly captures the rhythms and anxieties of his young characters, so that we are always laughing with rather than at them. His third character, another Korean named Beatrice Cho, adds a romantic complication that's nicely sorted out by play's end.
Celena Cipraiso's Salesgirl pits a young Asian woman named Cassie against an older, more experienced one named Cay as they discuss their love lives; it turns out they have more in common than initially meets the eye. Cipraiso adds a neat, satisfying twist to the end of her play. Intimate with the Locals, by Rachel Astarte Piccione, is a touching kind-of love story about an Indian store clerk named Mohit and his favorite regular customer, an American writer named Evie who has just returned from a life-changing trip to Bombay. Beckoning Cat, written by J.P. Chan, is an offbeat black comedy about Lotto, a lucky cat, and a diabolical scheme that gets hatched, spontaneously, by a frustrated clerk and his even more alienated pal.
Rishi Chowdhary's inventive and fascinating Color Me Desi comes next on the bill. In addition to presenting a charming look at two young men trying to cope, in very adolescent ways, with the expectations of friends and families, this piece offers an exploration of two South Asian subcultures than I—and, I'll wager, most white Americans—barely know anything about. Chowdhary's protaganist is a Punjabi Indian from Kenya who is in love with a Guyanese (West Indian) Muslim girl. The makings of a modern-day Romeo and Juliet are laid out here: prejudice and intolerance are by no means the exclusive provenance of westerners.
The evening ends with a bang with the musical Soonderella, by Samrat Chakrabarti and Sanjiv Jhaveri, a sung-through (!) eleven-minute comic fairy tale that updates the Cinderella story to present-day New Jersey, where our hard-working title character gets a crack at convenience store royalty in the person of Prince Charming Singh. Told with nimble wit and filled with funny, surprising lyrics and pleasing music, Soonderella brings the giddy excess of Bollywood movies to life with its eccentric characters, who also include Soonderella's American aunt and the Prince's goofy traditional servant Foffatlal. Happy endings are guaranteed for all—including the audience.
Good as the writing is—and every one of these seven plays is a keeper, as far as I'm concerned—it's matched by the rest of the production values. Director G.R. Johnson demonstrates remarkable versatility in finding the right tone and rhythm for each of these very different works; with simplicity and elegance, he transitions between the pieces by having the actors move the main scenic element—a counter with a cash register on it—to a different location for each play.
The ensemble of seven is enormously impressive. Debargo Sanyal, who wrote one of these plays, appears in four others, offering a near tour-de-force of virtuosity as the quiet, patient Mohit (Intimate with the Locals), a hapless Indian bus driver (Beckoning Cat), the restless immigrant clerk (Color Me Desi), and, hilariously, the outlandishly humble Foffatlal (Soonderella). Andrew Guilarte also appears in four roles, delivering outstanding portrayals of the American tourist in Paris, sci-fi geek Mo in S.A.M.O.S.A., the best friend in Color Me Desi, and Prince Charming Singh in Soonderella. Kavi Ladnier plays no fewer than three characters in Color Me Desi, to terrific comic effect, and then wins our hearts as Soonderella; John Wu is delightful as the clueless Ho in S.A.M.O.S.A.; and Jackson Loo, Jackie Chung, and Lethia Nall fill out the cast in a variety of roles throughout the evening.
seven.11.2005 is a grand celebration of storytelling, immigrant experiences, and cross-cultural pollination. What we have to learn from one another is just boundless; Desipina & Co. are doing a worthy thing tearing down some of the boundaries that exist between us and letting us laugh and cry together in the dark.
One final note: the venue for seven.11.2005 is the theatre at the historically rich and significant Lower East Side Tenement Museum, itself a great cross-cultural pollinator and well worth a visit.