Saturday, March 4, 2017

Free Outgoing by Anapama Chandrasekhar

Anna Khaja

By Joe Straw

“In England, the moon had seemed dead and alien; here she was caught in the shawl of night together with earth and all other stars.  A sudden sense of unity, of kinship with the heavenly bodies, passed into the old woman and out, like water through a tank, leaving a strange freshness behind.”  A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

I was looking for a quote about water and India and, I don’t know what happened, but something attacked my computer.  It destroyed my entire review and replaced it with unrecognizable inscriptions.  The un-do button was rendered useless. Then everything went dark. This was a sign, I believe, to chuck everything I had written, and begin again.  This manifestation was a sign, hopefully, a good sign.  

Water plays a big theme in this production.  How it all connects, I’m not quite sure. - Narrator

The story takes place in a dry and dusty flat in in a residential district of Chennai, India. 

The observed utility poles, above the flat, funnels electrical currents into multiple shelters and that is never a pleasant look for the poor. The complexity within this complex will soon be discovered.    

But in this particular apartment, the dining room, entertainment, and living room are all in one space.  The accommodations are sparse, chairs at the kitchen table, an ottoman covered in bright colors, and dazzlingly colored throw pillows on the couch, a small bookcase with very few books and equal number trophies.  The walls are festooned with magazine pictures strewn on the wall.  The late father’s photograph is adorned with a wreath, gone but not forgotten.  The Torans, an Indian traditional decoration, an honorific gateway, are above each doorway.

And dry as a bone, because water in this apartment is scarce. But a bottle sits on the floor – a third full or as can be best described as two thirds empty.

Any breeze coming into the apartment is filtered through holes in a bolted front door.  

East West Players, Artistic Director Snehal Desai presents Free Outgoing by Anupama Chandrasekhar and directed by Snehal Desai through March 12, 2017 at the David Henry Hwang Theatre at the Union Center for the Arts in downtown Los Angeles.

Malini (Anna Khaja), 38 years of age is an attractive single mother of two, a boy age 16 and a girl age 15, she invites her “colleague” over, Ramesh (Anil Kumar) to finish some work and to sell him Super Sparkler – a jewelry cleaner. 

Malini sells Super Sparkler for about five or six dollars a box to help make ends meet.  She instructs the slightly wayward and nefarious Ramesh on how to prepare the mixture using precious water for a small bath to soak fine textured jewelry.  

Married Hindu women wear toe rings but Ramesh, knowing Malini is not married, wants her to put hers in the mixture.  There is more on the mind of Ramesh than jewelry cleaner as he hovers over her to get closer look, using all his sensory sensations including making suggestive comments to lure her into his pathetic web.  

L - R Anil Kumar, Anna Khaja, and Kapil Talwalkar

Sharan (Kapil Talwalkar), Malini’s son, interrupts; he’s looking for his sister, whom he discovers is not home.

Malini tells Sharan to take off his shoes, to mind his language, and then asks him where he’s been all evening.  She then turns her attention to Ramesh.

“These boys! I tell you!...they’re busy watsapping each other, but they can’t find time to send one SMS to their mother.  Or call, though their outgoing call to me are all free.” – Malini

Ramesh can’t believe that Malini has grown children.  Whether this is flattery or another device to lure her remains to be seen. Suddenly, he is thirsty, for water, and if he has to sneak it, so be it.

Deepa, the daughter (not seen), calls on the phone. She needs to find a way home since Sharan will not pick her up.  The lorry carrying water is downstairs.  Malini is ashamed that they get water by filling buckets. She motions for her son to take the buckets down without Ramesh seeing him. And Ramesh is distracted as he pays for his Super Sparkler and leaves.

There is trouble brewing because the following morning the principal, Nirmala (Kavi Landnier), calls Malini at work and tells her to come home. Something has happened to Malini’s daughter Deepa who is now waiting in her room and won’t come out. Nirmala tells Malini that Deepa has done something at school and will be suspended from school for a month.

“Your daughter has – how shall I put it? She’s been intimate with Jeevan.” - Nirmala

There is more trouble as Santosh (Dileep Rao), father of the boy Jeevan (not seen) who is also in trouble from that same incident, confronts Malini about how to handle this predicament. But there is more trouble afoot as Santosh says there is a video of the event.

Without giving too much away, I have to stop.

Free Outgoing by Anupama Chandrasekhar is technically about a girl who has made a terrible mistake, just one, and the people who then ostracize her for that mistake.  The local community, and as well as the larger Indian society, is patriarchal and seeks to punish this girl for her misdeed. Just one misdeed. While they think nothing about the boy who has done damage. The effect on the family is sad, especially for the mother who wants nothing but the best for her family. She is struggling even within her own being.

Chandrasekhar’s play is in English with Tamil words, which makes me wonder whether anything was lost in the translation.  There is a great deal of dialogue about water that translates little in the meaning of the play, the mysticism from the water to start anew.  There is the stealing of water and the shame of dragging water up into the apartment from the lorry. The apartment stinks because of lack of water.  Water is taken from the daughter’s room to nourish a visitor.

Director Snehal Desai has the actors say the lines but does not provide a significant stamp to the production, a provocative vision that elevates the play. The stakes are not high enough for any of the players.  We lose sight of Deepa (not seen) behind the door, or that she is not really there for that matter. At one point she sings and that propels the character, but the others pay scant attention to the small girl who may be in shock at this point. We cannot lose sight of the character, the wonderful creature that made one bad mistake. Also, more has to be done with the lighting, which were both up and down without the nuance of lighting for morning, noon, and night during the course of the play. There is also a very funny moment about Malini desperately calling the United States and being confused with a call-center sales person that goes nowhere. Even Malini and her son do not see the humor in it. This is a play where the dialogue and physical action are not enough.  It is a play where the humor must be seen in great detail and the hurt must be felt from across the room. Also, water plays a central theme in the play, which seems to be discarded on purpose.

There was a point in the play where Anna Khaja playing Malini projected a stunning demeanor, a strong force with just a turn of the head.  It was a moment that turned my head as I thought there could be more to this role. Malini has to fight everyone to get what she wants, her son, the suitor, the principal and even her daughter to maintain an austere dignity. But, Malini falls into the “old school” trap of believing what men have told her rather than sticking to her guns and on the side of her daughter. Malini can never give up on her daughter, ever, and Kahaja must play to that objective. She must maintain order, get rid of the man, and pull her family together.  This is no small task.

Kapil Talwalker does a nice job as Sharan.  Sharan objective is confusing.  If his role is to help his sister then he must defy tradition and really help her.  Sharan seems to thinks that he has lost everything because of his sister’s action.  He appears to be mad at her and takes it out on her and his mother.  Those actions don’t help his sister and certainly doesn’t get him any farther in his quest for a better life.

Anil Kumar strikes a resemblance to George Clooney with a bad haircut. The bad haircut though is part of the character of Ramesh, a nefarious simpleton, who wants more than a cleaning powder.  His intentions are downright evil. But evil doesn’t work if is not completed in character from the moment he enters the apartment to the moment he is thrown out. His money must be scarce; he must dig for that money until he finds every last cent. His caliginous wants must be identified on stage, from the water, to the daughter, to the casual misdeeds of this nefarious character.

L - R Kavi Ladnier and Anna Khaja

Kavi Ladnier plays three roles Kirmala (the principal), Kokila (the neighbor), and Usha (the reporter).  Ladnier excels at all three playing three different types of Indian women from the strict disciplinarian to the feminist. Ladnier is a wonderful actress with a superior craft that brings exciting character traits to all three women. One could not believe these women were one in the same and that is a hallmark of a gifted actor.

Dileep Rao plays Santhosh, the boy’s father, who reinforces the country’s patriarchal beliefs. He cares little for the daughter.  He mostly looks after his son and doesn’t think she would ever press charges.  While Rao is believable in the role one thinks there is more to add to the character, and the conflict.

Scenic Design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz was very satisfying.  Lighting Design by Katelan Braymer needed a projection of time, day and night. Rachel Myers, Costume Design was this short of brilliant.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Sharath Patel – Sound Design
Glenn Michael Baker – Assistant Scenic Design/Prop Master
Lauren Cucarola – Assistant Costume Design
Brandon Hong Cheng – Stage Manager
Matthew Sanchez – Assistant Stage Manager

Run!  And take someone who is fascinated with India!

David Henry Hwang Theater
120 Judge John Aiso Street
Los Angeles, CA  90012

Telephone:  213-625-7000

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