PYAASA written and performed by Anusree Roy, directed by Thomas Morgan Jones (Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, 16 Ryerson). Previews tonight (October 23), opens October 24 and runs to November 15. Pwyc-25. See Opening. 416-504-7529.
THE MISFIT written and performed by Anita Majumdar, directed by Mark Cassidy (Passe Muraille Mainspace, 16 Ryerson). Previews begin tonight (October 23), opens October 25 and runs to November 15. Pwyc-$35. See Opening. 416-504-7529.
Domestic abuse, patriarchal attitudes toward women, the social gap between haves and have-nots.
They're all issues we're familiar with, but a pair of plays by and about South Asian women, each a multi-character show performed by the author, gives the subjects a different yet universally resonant context.
Anusree Roy's Pyaasa, a double Dora winner last year for script and performance, looks at the less than happy coming-of-age of Chaya, a pre-teen in the untouchable caste. The Misfit, by Anita Majumdar (Fish Eyes), focuses on Naz, an Indo-Canadian woman whose choice of lover outrages both families to a murderous degree; she escapes violence and joins a dance troupe that performs at weddings.
Coincidentally, the directors of both shows are Western men who've had to do a lot of research on cultural traditions unfamiliar to them.
"I'd heard about honour killings in the South Asian and Middle Eastern communities," says Mark Cassidy, director of The Misfit, "but neither Anita nor I wanted to do a didactic show on that theme. Instead, this is a character-based piece - she plays four women and two men - exploring complex human territory, notably the fundamental conflict between freedom and honour, modernity and tradition, the individual and the family."
Similarly, director Thomas Morgan Jones knew little about India's caste system before he started working with Roy on Pyaasa.
"We're trying to make this a story about individuals, the humanity that lies behind the system," he offers. "Born into the lowest caste, Chaya can never hope to escape from it, yet she still dreams about school and bettering herself. Her mother tries to show her that the most she can look forward to is a good marriage. If anything, schooling might be detrimental to that goal.
"Pyaasa explores how hope can be maintained or sometimes must be altered because of life experiences."
Both directors have worked with their actors on the specifics of moving back and forth between characters, especially in dialogue scenes.
"Anita transforms herself in front of us," says Cassidy, "and the story includes a surprising amount of humour as well as South Asian dance, which is often set to Western pop songs.
"We've focused on the characters' physical vitality, since the non-verbal can be as powerful as the text in this kind of work - specifically, on how the women hold themselves, how they physically react to the roles they've been given."
"For Anusree, a lot of the character work comes from how she connects with the floor," notes Jones. "Chaya walks on the balls of her feet, with her heels up, for instance, while her mother, Meera, who has a back problem, walks on the blades of her feet and puts her energy into her ring toe.
"In scenes between the two of them, Anusree literally has to pay attention to how she's grounded. That affects how she breathes and how she has to balance her breath when the two engage in fast dialogue."
Neither show, the two men point out, wants to moralize.
"Western viewers have to recognize the power and beauty of other traditions they see as confining," suggests Cassidy. "It's too easy to criticize and dismiss something that's different from the Western concept of choice and individuality."