By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“You are here,” the engaging title character tells us with a smile at the start of A Brimful of Asha, “to help me sort out my son.” The son smiles too, and rolls his eyes.
In this amusing and good-natured play-cum-memoir — which opens the Citadel’s Horizon Series Live in hospitable fashion — this ‘sorting out’ takes the form of a duelling recounting of a real-life 2007 story by a real-life mother and son. Ravi Jain is a notable Canadian actor/director (the founding artistic director of Why Not Theatre). Asha Jain (“hope” in Hindi) is his mom, a non-actor and as she cheerfully puts it, “an abused mother.” The dispute, says Asha, is “generational.” Ravi does not disagree.
Immigrants from India, Asha and Ravi’s dad are determined to arrange, in the traditional Indian way, a marriage for their resistant, in their eyes outrageously single, 27-year-old son. As a new theatre school actor grad with a career that’s starting to take off, Canadian-born Ravi has his own ideas on the subject of marriage. They involve waiting for a couple of years, what’s the rush?, till he’s more established professionally and he’s found a girl for himself, and fallen in love.
Bad enough, then, that Ravi is unmarried and wants to find his own life partner. But theatre? “What a proud profession for Indian parents,” she says, with an eye-roll you feel from Row P. Many of her interjections, amusingly, are director’s notes: “hurry up, you’re taking too long!”
Originally, the co-creators themselves performed the hit show, which undoubtedly gave this unusual storytelling enterprise an added immediacy. Not least because Asha, the theatre skeptic, turned out, by all reports, to have unexpected comic timing and a great deadpan. In the Citadel production directed by Mieko Ouchi, the characters are performed by a couple of terrifically likeable actors, Adolyn H. Dar and Nimet Kanji.
The challenge of direct, conversational rapport is upped by the change of venue, from the Citadel’s intimate Rice Theatre to the 680-seat Shoctor. This enables reassuring social distancing in a masked audience reduced to a 100-person max and scattered through the house. And it feels very safe, though I can imagine that, under non-COVID-ian circumstances (remember those?) the experience of A Brimful of Asha would be enhanced by eye-to-eye connection in a space that might seem less “theatrical.” Ditto the shared laughter.
But if that sounds like ingratitude, I must add that it feels like a special occasion to be out in the city and in a real live theatre with people. And Ouchi’s production and the actors, experts at generating affectionate connection with each other, are a lot of fun. Elise CM Jason’s set (lighting by Patrick Beagan), a long dining table, gets the position of influence in the centre of the Shoctor stage. And in Ouchi’s production which locates the characters at opposite ends, ventures towards reducing the distance between mother and son are always smartly walked back, which makes narrative as well as COVID sense. “Family album” type shots and other assorted documentary projections happen on a series of high screens behind Ravi and Asha. Only Ravi acknowledges them.
Kanji inherits the tricky task of being the actor who portrays the “real-life” half of the pair, who scores big on sheer natural charisma. And Kanji is very droll, and adept at making Asha ’s quick-witted rejoinders and annotations ‘non-actorly’. And Adolyn H. Dar as Ravi, who unlike his mom is in his natural habitat in a theatre, is much busier and more flamboyant at presenting the series of comic characters who populate the story (occasionally many at a time as befits a tale that’s as much about families as individuals).
Hang on, I’m getting to the story. The starting point is Ravi’s trip to India to give a theatre workshop in Calcutta. The plan is that he and his Canadian friend Andrew will travel around the country afterward and see the sights. Through a series of subterfuges involving a parental “vacation,” Ravi’s single-minded mom and dad arrive in India and keep setting him up, over and over, with “nice Indian girls,” i.e. suitable marital prospects they’ve vetted, in encounters and negotiations that involve both families. Ah, they even put an ad in an Indian newspaper.
In the battle for the upper hand in the culture collision and the gap between contemporary and traditional, Ravi, the modern Canadian guy with the gift of the gab, would seem to be the odds-on favourite. But he keeps getting out-manoeuvred and ambushed at every turn. And there’s a hilarious escalation in his mounting exasperation, as charted by Dar.
A Brimful of Asha, named for a song by the Brit alt-rock band Cornershop, is actually a sort of cross-generational cross-cultural screwball. And in the course of it, Asha unapologetically argues for the old ways, arranged marriages over so-called “love” matches. After all, when you get married and have kids, as you must and you will, it’s not just the individuals but the families that get hitched. Love is something that grows; it’s not where you start. Besides, getting a son married, which is to say “happy and settled” in Asha parlance, is her chief maternal duty.
Why would parents be better than kids at picking a life partner for them? “Parents have experience,” she says, an answer that echoes around the globe in every household of every culture. To Asha the filial rejoinder “it’s none of your business” is just so much lint in the cosmic dryer.
In a sweet, unexpectedly funny scene Asha tells the story of her own arranged marriage, her emigration to a new country and a lonely life in Toronto. Ravi wonders if it doesn’t seem, in retrospect, sad to have given up her own girlhood dream. That’s just on hold, she says puckishly. When Ravi is finally “married and settled,” and not a moment too soon, she can get back at it.
The phrase that recurs nearly as often as “married and settled” in this winsome little play is “on the same page.” And that, in the end, after all the arguing, is where the relationship between mother and son lands. You’ll leave smiling.
A Brimful of Asha
Theatre: Citadel Shoctor Theatre, as part of Horizon Series LIVE
Written by: Asha and Ravi Jain
Directed by: Mieko Ouchi
Starring: Adolyn H. Dar and Nimet Kanji
Running: through Nov. 15
Tickets (and COVID precaution details): citadeltheatre.com