Little Pretty and The Exceptional: how to deal with the impossible?
by DREW ROWSOME -Photos by Joseph Michael
There is chaos and comedy as Dilpreet and his two daughters attempt to get their new venture, a clothing store emphasizing saris, ready for its grand opening on Canada Day. And daughter Jasmeet intends to be prom queen while sibling Simran is waiting for LSAT results so she can continue towards her goal of being a human rights lawyer. The curmudgeonly but lovable father, a bubbly princess and a striving bookworm, are all classic tropes and the South Asian-flavoured setting gives it an unfamiliar familiar twist.
Then playwright Anusree Roy (Bombay Black) mixes in an extra plot element and what was an amiable story takes on another dimension entirely. Roy takes the very specific and makes it universal. Yes, the immigrant saga is there, particularly in one powerful speech, but it is only to ground us in a reality that then discusses the ways we handle stigma, particularly around mental illness: one family's dilemma resonates with issues that all of us have gone through, or will go through. What we talk about and deal with, what we hide and hope will go away.
The mix of comedy and drama is not as seamless as it could be, with Shruti Kothari (James and the Giant Peach, Rent) in particular having to shift emotional gears in ways that test even her considerable charm, but in the grand scheme it all makes a deliciously unbalanced sense. The set is draped with glittery fabric and littered with mannequins (one is vandalized at the very beginning and it becomes impossible to restore it to its former glory. It stands on the side of the stage, a mute observer and metaphor) that, depending on the lighting, goes from tacky opulence to horror film. It is a subtle and vicious depiction of how mental illness colours life and makes the audience complicit in the experience. It even asks, the daughter keeps asking for the lights to be dimmed as they hurt her, if theatre itself is not a form of fever dream, vision or disorder.
Though of course, an audience gets to walk away convinced of their sanity and that of the players. Little Pretty and The Exceptional lets us walk away, but not without some nagging questions and soul-searching.
Sugith Varughese gets the best lines, his blissfully unself-aware pronouncements about Indian stereotypes are worthy of a stand-up comedy routine, but in a final monologue he rips the audience's hearts out and truly shines. The monologue alas, comes out of a stylistic netherworld and it is disorienting, not necessarily a bad thing when creating an unbalanced mental state, and announcing a departure in style makes Varughese have to work harder to create the pathos. Perhaps there were lighting cue problems the night I attended as the entrances and exits between the short scenes were insufficiently masked by the distractions of the alternately ominous and joyous environs that were pinpointed.
Farah Merani is subtle as she takes us on her descent, and Shelly Antony (Scarberia) brings a goofy befuddled charm to the boyfriend who, an aspiring bio-chemist, is totally unprepared for the family dynamics and secrets he becomes part of. His arsenal of double-takes, and his one big gaffe, pull the audience much deeper into a group of people we are already heavily invested in. Kothari is a comic delight as she preens, struts and tries to cover her doubts and fears - and also shockingly vulnerable when the fears overwhelm. There is an extended bit with Chinese food preparation that is hilarious, unexpected and director Brendan Healy (Pig,Arigato, Tokyo, The Silicone Diaries) bravely lets it breathe past the point of uncomfortable comedy to where it becomes another illustration of the central metaphor.
A sari shop can be either exotic or, as it was to much of the audience, a familiar memory, but it is to Little Pretty and The Exceptional's credit that it can also be a slice of life that reveals characters we root for as they struggle with a tragedy that we all face in one form or another. And that is also a great illustration of the power of theatre when formed by talented hands.
Little Pretty and The Exceptional runs until Sun, April 30 at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St. factorytheatre.ca