By Pat Launer
You’re invited into the inner sanctum. The sacred space. The harem.
Welcome to the “House of Joy,” a thrilling creation by playwright Madhuri Shekar.
In a nebulous Indian location, ruled by an unnamed Emperor in a year somewhere around 1666, women rule the roost. They are guards, fighters, princesses, queens. There’s a eunuch who knows all and sees all. And a male doctor who knows a good deal, too.
Although the residents dutifully declare the place to be “paradise on earth” (for most, it’s pretty much all they’ve ever known), there’s plenty of palace intrigue to keep everybody more than occupied.
A brother takes arms against his brother. A princess wants to usurp the Emperor’s throne. A Queen wants to escape with her son, the heir apparent. And loyal guards want to be of service to those who seek freedom or change.
But this women’s world is severely constrained and sequestered. There is a semblance of female control, but ultimately, the men won’t recognize their power or bow to their royalty. Their self-assurance is impressive, but their oppression feels all too familiar.
Shekar’s script bounces gleefully between historical and modern-day tropes, expressions, considerations and concerns (even a few F-bombs are detonated). The storyline is captivating and delightfully unpredictable.
The San Diego Repertory Theatre is presenting only the second production of the piece, which premiered in the Bay Area in summer 2019. This is, by report, a markedly different conception, and it is a truly gorgeous production.
The Lyceum Space is reconfigured arena-style, for theater-in-the-round. This provides an intimate, inclusive perspective. We’re right there, in the middle of the martial arts competitions, highly credible fights with swords and staffs (excellent fight direction by Edgar Landa). We get a close-up view of the stunning, swirling, bespangled costumes (Jennifer Brawn Gittings).
“This is paradise,” says the stylized Sanskrit-looking script projected on the four walls. But our ringside seats show us otherwise.
Co-directors Sam Woodhouse and Arpita Mukherjee keep the action brisk, inventive and compelling. Secrets, plots and plans abound.
The cast is both beautiful and remarkable. The relationships among the characters are thoroughly believable. The limitations of the opulent environment (no one can leave) are heartbreaking.
Almost everyone ignores the physical abuse heaped on Queen Mariyam (poignant Tamara Rodriguez) by the unseen Emperor. But the stalwart, playful guards, Hamida (wonderful Devereau Chumrau) and Roshni (TaiReicka L.A., a stage manager making an impressive, nimble professional stage debut), risk their lives trying to help the other women alter the status quo.
Their boss, Gulal (forceful Ulka Simone Mohanty), is tough on her charges. The Princess Noorah (commanding Mondis Vakili) is also less authoritative than she seems.
The quick-witted doctor (appealing Karthik Srinivasan), who named himself Thermometer to obscure his past and his caste, also wants to be of assistance. Even the austere and controlling Salima (marvelous local, Shaun Tuazon) reveals sensitivities.
These are powerful women, seemingly divisive, but united when It matters. You’ll be caught up in the machinations and likely left slack-jawed at the end.
Adding immeasurably are the evocative original music by Kevin Anthenill (and additional music by Reena Esmail), minimalist but vibrant and suggestive scenic design (Yoon Bae) that includes a Mughal-inspired entry to the theater; and multihued lighting (David Lee Cuthbert), especially at the opening moments, when fractal kaleidoscopic colors illuminate the floor.
All told, this is one striking, all-encompassing experience, that takes you deep inside a rarely seen world, laced with elements all too recognizable in our own.
Unfortunately, performances of “House of Joy” were suspended after the opening because of the coronavirus pandemic. There is currently no plan for reinstatement.
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