Review: PYAASA

by Lynn on March 9, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

Anusree Roy photo: Michael Cooper Anusree Roy
photo: Michael Cooper

At Theatre Passe Muraille, Backspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written and performed by Anusree Roy
Directed by Thomas Morgan Jones
Designed by David DeGrow.

Writer-Performer, Anusree Roy reprises her searing play, once again giving a gripping performance of it. She creates a world totally foreign to us but totally familiar. That is part of its brilliance.

The Story. The play is set in Calcutta and focuses on the caste system in India and in particular the lowest caste, known as ‘untouchables.’ While the government of India abolished the caste system, the attitude is still there. ‘Untouchables’ are reviled by higher castes and are subjected to abuse, both physical and psychological, condescension and ridicule. They are not to touch anything if they work in a house. No one touches them either. It is so precise a prejudice that if even a shadow falls on a person of a higher caste they would say they have to take a shower to remove the stain. ‘Untouchables’ do the lowest jobs: cleaning toilets; breaking cow manure into smaller ‘cakes’ to sell; scrubbing floors.

A woman, who is an ‘untouchable’ works in a house cleaning toilets. She pleads with another woman of a higher caste working in the same house, if the woman’s son can find her daughter Chaya a job washing tea cups in the tea shop he runs. Chaya’s mother grovels for the job and even suggests that Chaya doesn’t have to be paid for two months, even though they need the money and they live in a plastic, makeshift tent under a bridge.

Chaya is eleven-years-old. She wants nothing more than to go to school and learn math. She loves math. But Chaya’s mother wants her to have a chance, to work in the tea shop and to make some money for the family. Chaya’s father cleans toilets in the police station. The mother sends Chaya off to the shop with strict orders to work hard and respect the man who runs it. Chaya is to be careful that nothing unpleasant happens. We know this is code for any thing sexual. If that happens then Chaya will be considered tainted. This is a cruel, small, confined world.

The Production. David DeGrow’s set is bare except for a metal pail of water. DeGrow has framed the space in a wide square of muted light. The ‘untouchable’ woman walks along the illuminated area as if confined to that space. She is not stuck there, but the idea is clearly and efficiently planted by DeGrow’s lighting of that frame.

Anusree Roy plays all the parts with dazzling creativity, efficiency and beautifully defined characterizations. As Chaya’s mother, she is hunched, unctuous, quick speaking, always with a forced smile, overly enthusiastic and always thinking on her feet. There is desperation for the mother to convince the higher caste woman to help her daughter. Charya’s mother will do what she needs to do to get her child a chance at a better life.

Just as quickly Anusree Roy turns into a higher caste servant by straightening up her body with a jolt, breathes in deeply through her nose and assumes a grimace accompanied by a raised hand, as if the woman will strike Chaya’s mother. Here the dialogue is given with a tight, mean delivery. The voice is always raised and there is a threatening note in the tone. Again, in a blink, Anusree Roy becomes Chaya, sweet, wide-eyed, innocent and a quick learner. She flits as any child would. She is enthusiastic about the job but impish in one instance when she’s washing the cups.

Director Thomas Morgan Jones directs the production with a firm hand but with such sensitivity that not one idea or thought is presented in any way but clear, pristine and gripping.

The production begins with Anusree Roy as the ‘untouchable’ woman speaking in Hindi as Chaya’s mother to the high caste servant and vice versa. Gradually there are snippets of English but it’s a daring move to speak a language most of the audience wouldn’t know, and still to grip the audience from the beginning.

Comment. Pyaasa (Hindi for “thirsty.”) is Anusree Roy’s first play which she played in this very space in 2008. She burst onto the theatre scene with a compelling performing energy with a play that heralded the arrival of a gifted, perceptive writer. And she has lived up to and surpassed all the praise that first production earned with every successive play she’s written. Her writing is poetic, hardnosed, spare and vivid.

In Pyaasa she puts us in a world of grinding poverty, so confined by class, caste and so little opportunity to get out, it’s almost suffocating. She writes of a world that is foreign but totally familiar. As Artistic Director Andy McKim says in his program note, “>Pyaasa is about the dehumanizing effect of privilege in any form”. This play is also about the power of art to communicate, clarify and touch your heart.

Pyassa was first performed at Theatre Passe Muraille, Backspace in 2008, when Andy McKim programmed it as part of his first season. In planning the theatre’s fiftieth anniversary season, Andy McKim, picked a production from the repertoire of each season to remount. Remounting Pyassa is an obvious choice to help celebrate the theatre. Pyassa is a gift.

Theatre Passe Muraille Presents.

Opening: March 8, 2016.
Closes: March 27, 2016.
Cast: 1 gifted woman.
Running Time: 50 minutes.

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