Broadcast text reviews: Sultans of the Street and Vitals

by Lynn on May 2, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following two reviews were broadcast Friday, May 2, 2014, CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 FM: Sultans of the Street, Young People’s Theatre, until May 15; Vitals in a secret location until May 25.

The host was Phil Taylor.

Good Friday morning, it’s theatre talk time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. What two shows of all the ones you saw this week will you be talking about?

First Sultans of the Street by Anusree Roy, who was on our show last week talking about her play. It’s at the Young People’s Theatre and is about kids begging in the streets of Calcutta, India.

And the second is Vitals by Rosamund Small, produced by Outside the March Theatre Company. It follows a paramedic named Anna as she attends to a call at a private house, and tells us about her job as she goes about it.

Tell us the story of Sultans of the Street?

Gladly. We are in Calcutta, India. Two young children Ojha age about 10, and his brother Prakash about 15, are playing hooky from school so they can fly their kites. Prakash is practicing for a tournament. They go to school in a uniform. They appear to be well off. They see two other young people, Mala age 10 and her younger brother Chun Chun aged 7, begging.

They are poor orphans. Their parents died in an accident and they were found eating scraps from the garbage by a woman who says she’s their aunt. They dress as gods (Shiva for example) offering blessings if people pay them and curses if they don’t. As Anusree Roy told us last week, it’s better for a kid to beg as a god than not.

Under Mala’s instruction she and Chun Chun are aggressive, zeroing in on anybody with some kind of distinction about them—a red turban; a brief case; a lovely scarf around the neck—thus giving their schpiel a personal touch.

They give all their begging earnings to aunty who keeps the money for them for when they go to school. Only problem is that the aunt says that when she goes to the school with the application it’s too late and they are already full and not accepting any more students. This has happened for two years.

Both Ojha and Prakash see Mala give their earnings to their aunty and are curious why that is happening. So they watch them beg until Mala sees them and challenges them. Prakash and Ojha approach the Auntie and ask what’s happening and why she collects the money from the brother and sister.

She rails at them too and since she knows they are playing hooky she threatens to tell their school and parents unless they beg for her. This sets the play in action. Playwright Anusree Roy writes about the whole world of begging and even Indian society and its rigid rules.

How so?

Out of the mouths of these young children. Mala is certainly aggressive in her work—she has to be, she depends on that money to be saved for school. Both she and her brother Chun Chun are desperate to go to school. She is brutal and a bully.

Ojah has a stutter. She calls him stupid and ‘stutter boy.’ She and her brother are poor and she says they must never talk to rich kids such as Ojha and Prakash. She is mightily aggravated when the two rich kids are coerced into begging. Friendship with a rich kid is not possible in her world.

So while Anusree Roy is not writing about a caste system, she is clearly illuminating the various prejudices people in that society have passed down from generation to generation. Aunty is a master of manipulation with the poor kids who believe that only she has helped them in life. And she can manipulate the rich kids who are afraid Aunty will tell on their school or parents.

But things come to a compelling end. Roy is writing for a young audience and so her play reflects the dilemmas they will face. Do you steal and lie because it’s fun and you get stuff? Or do you tell the truth, play fair all the time, and live your life like a responsible person of character and live with the punishment? I love that Roy floats those dilemmas into her play and it never sounds like lecturing. And I love that the conclusion is honest and not sugar coated.

As she says in her wonderful program note, she’s writing about hope—the thing that will get you through along with heart, faith, and tenacity.

How’s the production?

Like it a lot. Camellia Koo has designed a wonderfully evocative set of several moveable panels covered in rugs, rags, towels, sheets and all manner of fabric recreating the teaming slums of India. The panels revolve and are therefore efficiently turned and moved to create new scenes.

It’s well directed by Nina Lee Aquino and I think this is some of best work. She and her designer have the brother and sister sleeping inside two open umbrellas—love that idea. They are open and closed with precision, almost like they are choreographed.

At times characters pause when there is a startling revelation or offensive thought. That also gives the audience time to react. I just love hearing that slow rustle or moan from the audience of kids that a character has said something they—the audience–finds wrong. That’s a good writer who can tap into that and Anusree Roy is a gifted writer.

There is such an urgency to the ensemble and their acting—I credit the director too. Mala is a loud, argumentative, formidable young kid. She is played by Mina James and she is blazing. The arguments are firm. There is no backing down. At this point in her life there is no softness. Who would have taught that to her. She has been hardened and forced to grow up fast because of the begging she has to do to earn money.

As her brother Chun Chun, Richard Lee—obviously an adult as they all are—plays Chun Chun as a sweet innocent who just wants more food.

On the other side—the rich kids, as Ojha, Colin Doyle shows a kid who has struggled with a stutter and just wants to be heard. As his older brother Prakash, Ali Momen is upright, uncomfortable begging, but more so when he has to lie. And as Aunty Zorana Sadiq is quietly manipulative with all of them. She thinks on her feet and is a master at it.

And what about Vitals? It takes place in a private house? How does that work?

Written by Rosamund Small. We meet at a designated place in the West End. The conceit is that there is a 911 call. They are short staffed, so the audience will help out. (but not really so don’t get excited.) We get our headphones, a little radio attachment, latex gloves, and a map to the house and told to wait for the ambulance. When we get to the house we wait for the show to begin and it does when Anna, a paramedic, comes out of the house and says with frustration that she should have been a vet and that people are mean.

She tells us of the various rules of being a paramedic—for example, they can be going to a call and if they are flagged down, they have to stop. She tells us of the kind of calls she’s had to attend to: suicides; accidents; subway jumpers; deaths of small children by neglect; her various partners on the job; how it’s affected her.

It’s produced by Outside the March Theatre Company and they tend to do site specific work. So one of their plays took place in a kindergarten room in a school. Another in a park and a church. This one takes place in a private home and it’s been totally reconfigured by designer Anahita Dehbonehie. It looks like an art instillation and reminiscent of Sleep No More in New York—in which a total building was designed and reconfigured.

So in Vitals a room has clothes lines cross crossing a room with various paramedic forms indicating the emergency clipped to the line with clothes pins: an emergency in a yoga studio, a mishap in a hotel. We are naturally curious so we look in cupboards, drawers, closets to see how each room is designed. Sometimes we follow Anna as she tells her story, sometimes we listen on the earphones that offer other information.

The writing by Rosamund Small is vivid in depicting that emotionally heightened world. As Anna, Katherine Cullen is intense but varied. You can see how the job could get to her and it does in the end. t’s all directed by Mitchell Cushman, who is brimming with ideas that are compelling and a sense of the whole world of the play.

Does it work as a piece of theatre?

Partially. I’m always intrigued with what Outside the March has in store. But this one needs a bit more thought. hen we get to the house it’s confusing where we are to meet—in the back yard as it turns out—as we wait for the ambulance. We are silently beckoned into the house by various paramedics who indicate when we are to leave a room or sit, or move. How come one of them couldn’t have been at the house to show us where to go? Beginning on a note of confusion is not a good thing.

Often we climb up stairs that are dimly lighted for effect and sometimes a paramedic comes to shine the way with a flashlight. Never mind the effect—have those stairs lit properly since your audience is of various ages…and safety should be more important that theatricality.

How one actually gets out of there at the end is also a bit hazy. The last scene is in the garage—the door is opened and an ambulance drives up—we get our stuff that we initially checked, from there.

But then there is no clear indication of how to get back to the street. Ideally it should have been through the door leading into the garage and then out the alleyway, but that was not an option. That needs a bit more thought.

I’m up for adventures in the theatre, but this one is a bit rough and needs some smoothing of the rough bits. Interesting though. Glad I saw it. Huge respect for paramedics and what they put up with.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at


Sultans of the Street plays at Young People’s Theatre until May 15,

Vitals plays at a secret location you will be told about when you order tickets, until May 25.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eleanor May 15, 2014 at 11:26 pm

Just back from Vitals.
It was raining cats and dogs!
I want to say that a number of your concerns
We were told to go to the garage when we got to the house. At the house there was a paramedic out front indicating how to get to garage,
I was careful on steps cause they were wet and I ain’t young. Inside they were dry,but not badly lit
The directions for exit we’re clearly given.
Looks like someone read and heeded.
Hey! by the way, like you, I’m glad I saw it.
Kudos to the designer !!


2 Lynn Slotkin May 15, 2014 at 11:31 pm

Lovely Eleanor! Yes I heard about the changes. I saw the director on my way to work–he was going to the dentist–and he said that in fact they had incorporated some of my suggestions into the show. Good. Glad you were glad to see it. And yes, kudos to the designer.