Photo courtesy The Cultch
As you drive around Richmond, you might have noticed houses all lit up, almost like it was Christmas again. It might be people celebrating one of two different South Asian festivals depending on what area and faith of India their ancestors hail from. That’s one of the great things about Canada, you can use your Christmas lights almost all year.
At The Cultch, its time to celebrate the South Asian festival of Onam, which James, one of the characters in the play “Mrs. Krishnan’s Party” describes as, “Christmas, Easter and Diwali all rolled into one.”
Guests are greeted at the door by James, played by Justin Rogers, who offers an enthusiastic welcome to the party, says you’re going to have a great time, and takes you to your seat.
The smaller theatre at The Cultch, the Culture Lab, is transformed into a storage room with a big table and lots of party decorations. We are in the back of Mrs. Krishnan’s Vancouver convenience store. Her boarder, James, has decided to surprise her with a party for the South Indian harvest festival, Onam.
Kerala, on the western coast of the southern part of the continent, is home to a variety of faiths. Mrs. Krishnan is actually Christian, yet celebrates Onam with passion as part of her cultural heritage.
There is a good spattering of Lower Mainland content and humour, just enough to make it local. James’s New Zealand accent is explained by his being a friend of a friend of a distant relative who lives in New Zealand who’d asked Mrs. K. to let her son James board with her while he goes to university. Being from the prairies, those kind of situations and relationships ring true as well. As does Mrs. K.’s constantly complaining about him yet also making sure James is well-fed, if not over-fed, and his laundry all nicely done.
When she talks of selling her store and retiring back to India so she can, “Eat a mango from a tree,” James worries he’ll have to find another place to live in Vancouver. He asks individual party goers, “How much do you pay? Is it more than $300? Does your landlady do your laundry?”
There’s lots of audience participation possible in “Mrs. Krishnan’s Party” though through it all, the two actors, Rogers with Kalyani Nagarajan who plays the middle-aged widow Mrs. K., never break character. It is a party. We are all part of it, as much or as little as we want to be.
Whether it is Mrs. K. chatting with two guests at the table, “So, how long have you been married?” Then looking for two older participants in different parts of the audience who are not married and match-making for them, telling them, “See, this is where you could be in 24 years.”
The play seems almost highly-structured improv, done with such finesse that you believe totally in the two characters, their relationship and the party.
Mrs. K. decides to cook for everyone, “Don’t worry. It’s vegetarian and gluten-free,” she says.
She asks a large male audience member to open the tins of tomatoes. He cannot operate an old-fashioned can opener. Mrs. K. tells the assembled women they’d better teach the men in their lives to work a can opener. The tool then breaks. Hilarity ensues. It is the laughter I will remember.
It wasn’t until after the show we learned it isn’t intended to break. There was a real scramble backstage to find a replacement. Such is the skill of this acting duo that they weave mishaps it into the play with aplomb that makes it seem scripted and true to character.
Through it all, we all know what time we party-goers have to leave. Mrs. K. is clear we have to be out before her son’s plane lands. “He’s an architect,” she says proudly. “He never misses Onam with me.”
When he calls to say he can’t come because he has to work, the pathos slips in, “What’s the point of all this if he has to work just as hard as us?” Mrs. Krishnan asks. She ran the store alone after the tragic loss of her young husband, hoping for a better life for their son.
But, she soon perks up and gets the party-goers organized. There’s food to be made. While she goes off to clean up a mess James has made in the other room, he’s left with strict instructions for what to do, how to make the dal and rice.
While it never slips into slapstick comedy, there are physical mishaps. Balloons pop. Glasses accidentally break. Real glasses, from the audience members. It’s all woven into the play by these masterful actors.
(One note is to buy and bring in your drink before the performance as there is no intermission.)
As James asks, “What’s a party without balloons?” they are passed out for everyone to blow up. A bit of spontaneous balloon volleyball ensues. In the audience, strangers become friends, friends wearing festive garlands or scarves, everybody gets to borrow one.
This is a play that entertains and engrosses every moment of the production. It gathers all the senses into an experience that engages sight, sound, and smell as the incense wafts and the smell of the cooking dal gradually gathers strength to where it permeates the room. It’s a party. Party on!
Just like any good party, the room gets warm so dress in layers.
The three young women sitting beside us laughed the hardest, with knowing laughs. They had South Asian grandmothers. After the play, they said this all rang so true. Their grandmothers could organize any sized group of adults or kids, just as Mrs. K. did all evening, getting party-goers (normally called audience members) to help her out with getting things ready.
My scientist companion, usually understated to a high degree says, “Really, this is a must-see. You don’t see stuff like this in Vancouver but we should, because it is so relevant.”
The three young women who sat beside us say, after the performance, “This is the stuff I used to do to my mom. I’d be at a party and say I was doing something about work.”
Another speaks of the wonderful smell of the dal cooking saying, “It is a multisensory event. The food, that was the point.”
While the third loves the myth, the story of Onam, woven in and out of the play by Mrs. Krishnan.
The members of Indian Ink Theatre Company, the New Zealand creators of this play that has been touring for about two years and heads to New York again this year, mingle after the show, as party-goers eat their dal and rice. A young woman mingles but Mrs. K was a no-show. It seems, 24-year old Nagarajan personified her role so convincingly that no one twigs to her actual youth.
A small note about the sound design: it was stellar—seamless and just the right volumes to set each mood. In fact, all the stage craft that goes into this production is spot on. Also a big thank you to the Elsie and Audrey Jang Fund for supporting this production. It’s just the kind of thing we need in live theatre in this, or any other, city. Former programming head for a Canadian TV network, Ivan Fecan had the rule, “A good story, true-to-place and it will ring true for everyone.” It certainly rang true for all of us.
For anyone who has ever known or had a South Asian grandmother, the play will pluck at your heart strings while tickling your funny bone. Regardless of ancestry, it will ring true. It certainly did for every audience member I asked.
The most important message from the play is about love and its many forms. A family can be formed in an evening, at a party. Suitable for all ages who can sit through a performance. The child in the audience our night said he had a great time.
The other important message is get your tickets early. As one of the best plays in Vancouver this year, these tickets will sell. The Cultch is on to a winner. Tickets are selling fast.
Mrs. Krishans’s Party runs through Feb. 3 as part of The Cultch’s Femme Series which is supported by the Charlotte and Sonya Wall Arts Fund. For information and tickets click here.