Review: NEW

by Lynn on May 8, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Produced by Necessary Angel Theatre Company, in association with Canadian Stage and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. Playing until May 14, 2023.

Written by Pamela Mala Sinha

Directed by Alan Dilworth

Set by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Michelle Bohn

Lighting by Hugh Conacher

Sound by John Gzowski

Cast: Fuad Ahmed

Shelly Antony

Dalal Badr

Alicia Johnston

Ali Kazmi

Pamela Mala Sinha

Mirabella Sundar Singh

NEW by Pamela Mala Sinha, is a play rich in South Asian culture, tradition, issues and stories. But it’s so packed with incident that one gets the feeling the playwright could not decide what to take out, so she put in too much. Judicious editing is in order to tighten and strengthen the focus of the play.

The Story. NEW is about three South Asian couples in 1970 in Winnipeg. Each has their own issues and stories.

We begin with Qasim. He’s a 42-year-old doctor working in a hospital in Winnipeg. He’s just been married, by phone, in an arranged marriage. His bride, Nuzha is 18 or 20 years-old, is in India and Qasim is in Canada. His mother insisted he go through with this arranged marriage, threatening to go on a hunger strike if he didn’t and Qasim has reason to believe her. Nuzha is flying to Canada to be with him. A wrinkle is that Qasim is in a relationship with Abby, a nurse who is white, who works in the same hospital and she doesn’t know of the marriage. He drops it on her just before he has to go to the airport.

The next couple is Sachin and Sita. She was a celebrated dancer in India but has not danced in Canada. Sita recently gave birth to a still born child and that has weighed heavily on both of them. Sita has become remote and depressed. Sachin does not know how to comfort her. And finally, we have Ash and Aisha. They are loving and modern thinking but there is pressure from home to have children.

The lure of home and the strong hold on tradition affects each couple in different ways. They all live in the same international apartment complex so they offer each other support.   

The Production. Lorenzo Savoini has designed a multi-purpose apartment that serves as the domain of each couple depending on the scene. A ‘sur-title’ above the stage indicates where we are: “Qasim’s place,” “Sachin and Sita’s place,” “A concert” for example.

Michelle Bohn’s costume designs are exquisite, at times a mix of modern and traditional.  Sita and Nuzha are in beautiful traditional saris. Aisha is in modern clothes, slacks, shirt etc. At one point the couples have a traditional party and the men wear beautifully tailored, traditional garb, respectful of the tradition and comfortable amongst themselves.

The play opens with Qasim (Ali Kasmi) in a heightened phone conversation with his family in India. He is thrashing out the final arrangements of the dowery etc. and needless to say he is frustrated and anxious about the whole thing. As Qasim, Ali Kasmi beautifully modulates the angst depending on who is on the other end of the line. Ali Kasmi is such a fine actor as recent work would attest (Uncle Vanya, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoe, Behind the Moon) always finding the truth of his characters. As the play goes on Qasim spends as little time with Nuzha as possible. He says that he can’t stand to be alone with her. Kasmi says it not with revulsion but a hint of regret, thus filling the line with so many other emotional possibilities.

Qasim doesn’t tell his friends of the arranged marriage until he asks Sachin (Fuad Ahmed) to take him to the airport to pick up his bride. Nuzha (Mirabella Sundar Singh) arrives to a strange country, doesn’t know anyone and her husband is ignoring her.  To say she is lonely is an understatement. As Nuzha, Mirabella Sundar Singh gives a performance that is shimmering in sorrow and loneliness. When she arrives, she keeps her gaze down and does not look up directly in the eyes of her husband, nor anyone for that matter. It’s a beautiful and painful expression of her isolation.

But Nuzha finds a friend in Sachin since his wife Sita (Pamela Mala Sinha) seems to want to grieve alone. Nuzha shows her tenacity and curiosity when she asks for a bus schedule to go and explore the city. As Sachin, Fuad Ahmed, explains how to use the schedule with patience. Fuad Ahmed captures Sachin’s helplessness in trying to comfort and understand Sita, and is buoyed emotionally that he can be supportive of Nuzha. Mirabella Sundar Singh illuminates how Nuzha gradually gains more and more confidence in this strange place.  Emotions are fragile all round, to say the least.

Where is Abby (Alicia Johnston) in all this? She’s lurking around and pining for Qasim. Sita has planned a traditional party but only for her South Asian friends and that includes Nuzha. Abby shows up with a present. Tensions are high. We assume Abby wants to see her rival, even though common sense would suggest that she should not have come. Abby gets Qasim alone and asks if he’s dumping her because she’s white—Alicia Johnstone is so needy as Abby. Qasim quickly assures her that is not the reason.  But of course, the implication is that Qasim has to marry an Indian woman and one of his mother’s choosing—so an arranged marriage is the solution.

As Sita, Pamela Mala Sinha gives such a nuanced, detailed performance. Sita has many secrets and has to contend with so many emotions. There is the grief of the lost child. There is the grief of her lost artform—traditional Indian dance. In a lovely scene, Abby knows that various hand movements in classical Indian dance mean something and would like Sita to demonstrate some of those movements. Sita gladly, proudly shows her a few. Pamela Mala Sinha’s hands are graceful and poignant. She is of course playing a part based on her mother. The reverence is all there in Pamela Mala Sinha’s performance.

The entire production is directed by Alan Dilworth with respect and care. The staging is fluid. The whole production is beautifully acted and full of nuance because of Dilworth’s sensitive directorial hand.  

It’s interesting that playwright Pamela Mala Sinha has put these three Indian couples together and they have different backgrounds and religions (some are Hindu and others are Muslim) and they all live in harmony. I love that. They also accept Abby into their fold without negative assumptions it seems. But there are also references to certain traditions—the arranged marriage, the proper way to grieve for a dead child—that must be followed. I found those contradictions interesting.

Pamela Mala Sinha has filled her play with rich context history, tradition, attitudes and ideas. As I said, I loved that these three couples got along even with different religions. But Qasim adds a new context when he notes that he lost his country ‘in the partition’ when India was divided  into India and Pakistan.  This references the animosity and difficulties between Hindu and Muslim—so the fact that these couples get along is heartening. (An aside—Oh for a Canadian producer or Artistic Director with the guts to produce Anusree Roy’s stunning play Trident Moon that is about this very partition. It’s only had a production at the gutsy Finborough Theatre in London, England. It needs to have a full production here)

While there is much to admire NEW, I do have concerns about the play. It needs to be tightened and judiciously cut to create a more focused and cohesive work. At this point playwright Pamela Mala Sinha wants to say so much that the play seems scattered, sprawling and sometimes underwritten.

Aisha (Dalal Badr) and Ash (Shelly Antony) in particular feel underwritten. We know precious little about them. They are a loving, modern couple but despite their efforts (fertility trials, pressure ‘from home’), Aisha is not getting pregnant. As Aisha, Dalal Badr is both lively and concerned while Shelly Antony as Ash is supportive with his optimism.  

But there is a whole scene at a concert with a sexist comedian when Aisha disrupts him doing his act, to protest his anti-feminist message. If Aisha is a staunch feminist, then it should have been established sooner and with more detail. The scene comes from no-where substantiated by nothing. It should be cut.

Sachin tells us that Sita is a perfectionist and won’t go out of the house until she is adept at whatever she is focusing on. She has not learned English for that reason. This is something that has to come from the character, either shown in her action or her dialogue, not as information from her husband, again that is not developed.

Qasim and Nuzha would appear to be the more prominent of the couples since they are involved with many and various machinations in the storytelling. More attention is warranted in their development to justify the rather touching ending. One wants to be moved by an ending, not confused on where it came from or its justification.  

Comment. There are program essays giving points of view on issues supposedly NEW. One is from Pamela Mala Sinha as the playwright talking about her parents and where she began with the play. One is from Pamela Mala Sinha’s mother, obviously a model for Sita—a dancer, talking about her history as a dancer in India and how she developed that talent in Canada. There is a director’s note from Alan Dilworth giving his opinion of what the play is about. There is a video on the Necessary Angel website with each couple expressing what they feel the play is about, with Pamela Mala Sinha saying that if a person looks brown like she is, the assumption is that they are new to the country—hence the title.

This is all well and good, but the reference we go to to find out what the play is about, is the play! The ‘interesting thing’ about NEW is that it is not about these things noted in the essays or interviews. No one in the play looks at these characters and comments on their skin colour and ‘assumes’ they are new to the country because they are all of the same skin colour and are interacting with each other.

Sometimes I wish the creators would just let the play speak for itself and not impose any directive on it or at least focus clearly on what is actually meant to be said. Pamela Mala Sinha has a lot of fine, important ideas touched on in the play. I think another go-round to edit, solidify and focus on what the play is meant to be about would make it stronger.  

Necessary Angel Theatre Company in association with Canadian Stage and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre present:

Plays until May 14, 2023.

Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes (1 intermission)

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.