Thursday 23 January 2014

A Brimful of Asha is pure Canadiana

A Brimful of Asha is a lively, witty and clever verbal memoir. Written by Ravi Jains, it is an extended conversation between his real-life mom Asha and Ravi himself. In 1974 she was an immigrant from the Indian sub-continent; a half-decade later along comes her cheeky Indo-Canadian second son. Now in his mid-30's, Ravi directs himself and his never-before-actress mom in the piece. The show takes place at a Toronto kitchen table, a shiny Ikea knock-off. Via yak-yak between mom-&-son, the show recounts his folks' manipulations to arrange a marriage for Ravi on a trip he made to India in 2007 to conduct a theatre workshop. He was footloose and fancy free then at age 27. A recent theatre arts specialty grad, he'd set his effervescent personality to the challenge of launching a theatre company in TO prior to his brief India gig. Marriage was without a doubt the last thing on his mind.

Now it's no great secret that arranged marriages for countless decades were de rigeur in India. Whether they were parents (plus grandparents, aunts, uncles &c) of boys or girls, families worked at match-ups, often using newspaper ads and resumes called bio/data to pre-screen prospects and their DNA pedigree. But also, out of superstition, to screen their place of birth, day of birth, and time-of-birth to triangulate just the right match. That the wealth of the prospective family might factor in to all this, oh perish the thought...

On stage Ravi's half of the dialogue consists of his riffing off memory-bits of his parents' pre-nup ambushes of him as he traveled across India, ambushes ad nauseam until he'd had it right up to the brim and over the top.

For her part Asha (her name means "hope" in Hindi) sits stoically at the table and responds to Ravi's gripes. She's no slouch or pushover. Basically she accuses her talented theatrical offspring of being Golden Globe Hopeless! in each of the Son category, the Man-Card category, the Marriage category, and the Common Sense category. These exchanges they pull off with such love and risible gusto, however -- smart-aleck 1st-gen son fends off mom's insistent but impish zingers -- that the crowd giggles almost incessantly throughout the show's 90 minutes.

This is not a typical stage play. This is staged spontaneity. Everyone is greeted with a hand-shake as they enter by both Ravi and Asha. They are invited on to the stage to enjoy a samosa (I scarf'd down two and was offered more). Ravi and Asha go up and down the aisles greeting folks with obvious pleasure. It's as if everyone's being invited to an outsize family reunion. 

No question, any pretext of a proscenium arch or 4th wall separating cast from audience goes poof. When Ravi introduces his mom at the start and she gets a big Woo-hoo! from the crowd, Ravi ad libs that she got a bigger welcome than he did. Well, she retorts, "The play is called A Brimful of Asha, not A Brimful of Ravi!" Even more huzzah's from the crowd. Throughout they invite the audience to shout-out their support for one character's version of "the truth" or the other's. Lots of laughs and claps for clever one-liners plus interjections of Oh no! and similar gasps and guffaws mark the progress of the night. E.g. when Ravi recalls his rules for marriage, number two is "I won't marry just anyone" to which Asha responds in a nano-second: "That's the stupidest rule I ever heard of." Uproar! throughout the room.

Mom explains she's desperate to hold on to her old country values. 
Ravi protests that he wants "love", not a "match". And he wants to do it in his own event-time mode, not mom and dad's clock-time mode. That in India everyone wants to know why Ravi is not yet married bothers him not one bit. His aunt, meanwhile, puts it this way : "Ravi, what's the matter with you? Just get married, get it over with, we'll have a party, it'll all work out!" At another point a relative chides : "Can we just sign the papers, break out the love juice and get on with it?" In exasperation Ravi tells his mom : "You and Papa should just consider me dead!" and Asha fires back : "We can't consider you dead until you're married!" Dare I say mostly the women did the laughing at that one?

Playwright Jains' devices of "scripted improv" and meet-&-greet the patrons is clever and effective. Mom and son disagreeing vigorously, yes, but both agreeing about the cultural gaps that occur between generations of immigrants. She admits she's hooked-back to the old country with its values. He, of course, champions the break-out urges of kids born in this exciting new world countless longitudes to the West. No doubt this all works in part because show-goers are often immigrant or 1st-2nd generation newbies here themselves. They can't help but relate to these culture clashes, particularly when they're wrapped up in Asha and Ravi's kitchen table patois. (Said patois included various soliloquies by Ravi in Hinglish to replicate the remembered family discussions : his dialogue tickled the ears with precisely the intended funnery.) But we know love is not all smirks and giggles. There are also shouts & murmurs, hints & allegations, tears of pain & cries of rage that round out this scene : family matters, all in all, good, bad and ugly.

So on the one hand the show is redolent of Ground Hog Day in its re-telling of the same basic tale time and time again. A 2-hander play with a 1-joke storyline, arguably. Gotta say there's a whiff of monotony to the mom-&-son exhanges, ultimately -- the show's perhaps 7-10 minutes wordy-ish -- and mom's lines are a bit monochromatic in tone and hard to hear on occasion. That she had never acted before this play helps explain it, for sure. So those are cheap-seat quibbles at best. Fact is both Asha and Ravi are wholly engaging, endearing, and heart-warming with big genuine smiles and laughs. They present as family, and they welcome the audience to join them as new-found cousins at this reunion. You will be charmed at both the dramatic wordplay and cultural exposure you enjoy. And the samosas are de-lish!


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