Sunday, 20 November 2016

Brothel #9 hints at hope in the shadows
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night &
those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Brothel #9 is not for the faint-of-heart. Sex slavery. Rape. Tortuous screaming in the show's opening moments. Violent undercurrents constant. Just life as it is and what it is for these characters trapped in Calcutta's sex trade ghetto (the city now known as Kolkata). 

Dreamt up by South Asian-Canadian playwright Anusree Roy, the show resulted from numerous trips Roy took to this northeast Indian city specifically to interview sex workers, their pimps, and the cops who are bribed to not only look the other way but have their way with these women they "protect".  Ms. Roy was also influenced in her imagining by the troubled abandoned roaming teens she worked with in India's inner city core years earlier and their utter vulnerability (the blinding scene from Slumdog Millionaire popped instantly into mind watching her script play out).

The show focuses on four characters. The youngster Rekha who naively thinks she's being sent to Calcutta to take up her first real job : making light bulbs. Fact is she's been sold to the pimp Birbal by her sister's husband who drops her off outside the "factory". The madam of the brothel Jamuna who is resigned begrudgingly and fatalistically to this life. When he isn't hunting out women to be sex-for-hire "playthings", Birbal spends his time going back to his village to care for his wife who is dying of "the monkey disease" -- AIDS. Last but not least Salaudin, the rapist married cop who has been Jamuna's Tuesday / Thursday john for years but finds his tumescence aiming elsewhere now.

WYSIWYG :  The expression "It is what it is..." is neither nihilistic nor impotent in circumstances as desperate as these. To borrow a familiar Vancouver DTES refrain from their annual photo calendar, it's a belief there's hope in the shadows.

And so it is with 34-year-old Roy's script (first produced in 2011). How enslaved now in this ghetto, Rekha (Adele Noronha) learns to adjust to her imprisonment in order, she hopes, to buy her freedom from Balbir (David Adams) and return to the rural village life where she grew up. As the saying has it, the only way out is through. To escape -- whether physically or emotionally or morally -- one must forgive. But remember, too. Have compassion, yes, but keep the faith and not succumb to what lesser souls surely is flat-out futility.

Through just four characters playwright Roy manages to make the universe personal. In Jamuna (Laara Sadiq) we see a complex survivor who is resigned to her life. She makes fish soup and sings Indian lullabies to herself even while Salaudin rapes the virgin god-fearing innocent Rekha one room away. Birbal is a violent but also compassionate man. Thus the paradox of him being a pimp but caring deeply for his wife, too. Salaudin (Shekhar Paleja) claims to fall in love with this young woman he earlier raped. For her part, Rekha's determination to liberate herself from her prison is undiminished even as she faces profound life setbacks.

Production values that enhance the show :  Upon entering the Cultch's Lab auditorium I was instantly struck dumb by Drew Facey's set and attendant props. A more detailed and realistic rendering of big-city back alley brick, exposed wires, and failed plaster I have never seen equaled on any Vancouver stage. Worth the price of a ticket just to see this !

Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh's brilliant saris worked marvellously both as costumes and as opportunities under director Katrina Dunn for continuous stage business by the two women principals. Lighting design by Adrian Muir captured alleyway starkness with subtly, while Rup Sidhu's moody melancholic sitar-&-vocals supported the Facey / Muir milieux viscerally. Completely "unrepresentative". Totally honest & genuine, all of it.

Acting pin-spots : Slogging my way out of EastVan amidst the Culture Crawl crawlers -- and hitting every red light between Vennables and the Knight Street bridge -- it occurred to me I witnessed this afternoon three absolutely paramount, gripping, breathtaking performances.

A more forceful and compelling Birbal could not be imagined than what opera veteran David Adams brought. As noted, a paradox. A pimp. A loving husband. A bully. A buddy. Utterly compelling, rich, nuanced, profundo.

For her part I could watch Laara Sadiq forever. As the fatally compromised and complex Jamuna she was superb. To imagine her as Lady Macbeth or Lear's chippy daughter Cordelia is just heaven to think of. In jazz they talk of "chops". Sadiq has irresistible unconquerable chops.

And then there's Adele Noronha as Rekha, named by her late mother after Bollywood superstar (nearly 200 films) Banurekha Ganesan. The range of Noronha's emotions from terror to s.t.w. "businesswoman" to the moral but forgiving judge of Jamuna and Salaudin as she engineers her escape to nurture a new life, lit. & fig. -- Noronha grabbed me by the throat. I cannot remember a Vancouver stage character and performer who has brought on such welcome tears in me. 

Who gonna like : Exceptional. Stupendous. Astounding.  From what I have written above, you will know whether this is for you or not. 

Particulars :  Produced by Touchstone Theatre as part of the Diwali Fest in association with The Cultch. On at the VanCity Cultural Lab stage through November 27. Run-time two hours including intermission. Happy hour at the bar until 30 minutes before show time. Festival seating : 1/2 hour ahead to grab the best is recommended. Parking in the area often "Residents Only" so plan ahead. Schedules and tickets @ the cultch.com or by phone 604.251.1363.

Production crew: Director Katrina Dunn (her final production as Touchstone Theatre Artistic Director [19 years]). Set & Props Designer Drew Facey.  Costume Designer Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh.  Lighting Designer & Production Manager Adrian Muir.  Music Supervisor Rup Sidhu.  Stage Manager Joanne P.B. Smith.  Assistant Stage Manager & Props Support Shila Amin.  Sound Editor & Technical Director Scott Zechner.  Fight Choreographer David Bloom.  Accent Coach Supriya Bhattacharyya.  Head Carpenter Adam Curry.  Carpenters Robert Allen, Jesse Hendrickson & Jesse Trayler.  Scenic Painter Justus Hayes [Ed. Note : Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!]  Transportation Randy Biro.  Scenery built at Great Northern Way Scene Shop.  Publicist Jodi Smith.  

Performers :  David Adams (Birbal).  Adele Noronha (Rekha).  Shekhar Paleja (Salaudin).  Laura Sadiq (Jamuna).  Munish Sharma (various johns).

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