Sunday 20 January 2019

Mrs. Krishnan's Party is like none you've ever seen
(heard, smelled or tasted)
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)

Ever have a hankering to be right in the middle of a riotous Indian party? That's what awaits you at the Culture Lab where you've been invited to Zina Krishnan's little shop in New Zealand to join in celebrating Onam. It's a Hindu harvest festival that champions the circle of life, death and rebirth. Typically Zina and architect son Apu spend the time reflecting on the death of family patriarch Gobi who 20 years back was killed during a night-time burglary in the shop's larder. 

No quiet reflective seance this year, however. Zina's university boarder James (Justin Rogers) is a wannabe DJ and partyboy with a flair. He dresses up as King Mahabali --  patron saint of Onam -- and invites the whole neighbourhood (us, the audience) to Mrs. Krishnan's "dairy", as Kiwis call corner convenience stores. At first a bit hesitant at our Surprise!, Zina shortly immerses herself (and us) in prepping the biggest Onam feast imaginable.

Mrs. Krishnan (Kalyani Nagarjan) is shocked to find the back room of her corner store filled with partygoers (the audience), all bedecked with garlands and flowers by her boarder "DJ Jimmy" (Justin Rogers).It won't take her long to get into the flavour(s) of it all, however, with a little help from the dozens of ticket-buying invited guests crowding into her space. 
Photo credit : Indian Ink Theatre Company / Ankita Singh
Seventy-five minutes of remixed Indian hip-hoppy music, laughter, improvisation and spicy South Asian food are what's on this Cultch menu.  Brought to Vancouver by the Kiwi troupe Indian Ink Theatre Company, here's what their website says about them :

Indian Ink Theatre Company is one of New Zealand’s most successful theatre companies with a reputation for “total theatre which offers humanity and psychological insight in a package of good plain laughs, luminous performances and brilliant staging” (Dominion Post, NZ).

For almost two decades Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis have pursued their idea of the ‘Serious Laugh’- opening mouths with laughter in order to slip something serious in along with a love of mask and story. The company blends western theatrical traditions with eastern flavours and has been critically acclaimed for its use of live music, heightened theatricality, humour, pathos and great storytelling.

The dramatic hook of the piece is that both "DJ Jimmy" and Mrs. Krishnan have challenges they're facing : she is thinking of selling off the "dairy" and heading back to India, while he confronts some personal demons of his own. But not so much, not now, not before we set up to celebrate Onam and Apu coming home, thanks.

Mrs. Krishnan takes a wee bite of her kitchen creation of traditional dhal while "DJ Jimmy" watches in horror at what it all is going to taste like because of a special spice he inadvertently added to the mix. 
Photo credit : Indian Ink Theatre Company / Ankita Singh

And while Jimmy and Zina engage in charming banter, they engage the audience, too : first by asking folks to distribute colourful garlands and scarves and balloons; then by having to respond to questions about where they're from -- single, married, been-to-India type questions. Next with a bit of spontaneous and fun browbeating by Mrs. Krishnan -- feeding an Onam meal to 100 neighbours ain't easy! -- we join in to help out in the kitchen; offer up a bit of spontaneous shout-outs and chitty-chat; answer one of the actor's ubiquitous cellphones that keep tootling off. 

Co-writer / director Justin Lewis was on hand Sunday afternoon for a talkback. He calls the show "immersion" theatre. Because the audience is immersed in and an integral part of the dramatic action. Its purpose is connectedness, involvement & engagement to amuse and entertain, yes, but also share a bit of Indian mythos and history -- to tell a tale of "seeing the characters deal with pain and loss" even as they chop onions and fill up an industrial rice cooker. Not to mention the spilled rice, water, flower petals and DJ dancing that all find a way to bring the stage floor into the action, too.

Eight of the audience sit 'round the kitchen table that also serves as Zina's traditional dance platform, ultimately. The rest are in rows of "Inner Circle" seats that line both sides of the Cultch Lab black box room. None are safe from in-your-face questions from Zina, chummy high-fives from Jimmy or barked-out "orders" from the two of them to help make the party go. 

As Zina Krishnan -- with a masque of ginormous false teeth and false glasses -- Kalyani Nagarajan is a wholly engaging presence whose intense eyes and provocative voice will linger in memory for many joyous moments to come. Justin Rogers as James -- a magician in real life -- pulls off some acting magic as he befriends everyone who enters the theatre, calls them by name, seats them with playful gibes and welcomes.

Enchanting. Captivating. Enticing. Inventive. Ingenious. The list could go on. Oh yes : and the dhal was scrumptious for those with a palate for Indian spice. (Ever been fed, on-stage, at the end of a show before? I didn't think so.)

If theatre-in-the-round took giant steps to break down the traditional fourth wall, immersion theatre is baptismal involvement on a whole new break-the-plane level for sure.

Just a delight to share this space and this time with 100 BFF strangers and these ever-so-clever actors with an ever-so-clever script of learned lines spiced up with improv. Just. Plain. Fun : Do. Not. Miss.

Particulars :  Produced by Indian Ink Theatre of New Zealand [Artistic Directors Justin Lewis & Jacob Rajan] in collaboration with The Cultch.  At the Culture Lab. 1895 Venables.  On thru February 3, 2019. Run-time some 75 minutes, no intermission. Box office 604.251.1363 -or- via the internet at the Cultch.

Production team :  Playwrights Justin Lewis and Jacob Rajan.  Director Justin Lewis.  Set & Poperties Designer John Verryt.  Costume Designer Fiona Nichols.  Lighting Designer Jane Hakaraia.  Sound Designer Liam Kelly.  Dramaturge Murray Edmond.  Production & Stage Manager D. Andrew Potvin.  

Performers : Kalyani Nagarajan (Zina Krishnan).  Justin Rogers (James, a.k.a. DJ Jimmy


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