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There are two ways to approach Dan O’Brien’s “The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage”. One can look at it as just that – a memoir created by gradually collecting as many as possible of the secrets a family never told. In this view, the show becomes an elaborate puzzle made up of the various reticent members of a deeply dysfunctional family which gradually come together to underscore the demons inhabiting the playwright himself. That works, after a fashion.
The other view, however, which can be far more intriguing, is to look at the entire play as the story of a quest: the kind of quest where the searching is everything. It allows for conjecture and obsession and self-affirmation, but is also a thing in itself which becomes integral in the quester’s view of the world. Now receiving its premiere at The Theatre at Boston Court, the play is far more interesting in the latter view.
Here it takes its place alongside other questing folk of story and legend who defined themselves by the search, not the finding. Like the unsuccessful search for the Holy Grail (sorry, Indiana Jones fans), the journey was the story all along. Finding the thing being searched for would (and is) almost pointless. The questing, and the questions, make the story.
O’Brien, according to this work, is the youngest of six children, none of whom (as the play begins) he has contact with. He has been cut off by his parents as well, and his aunts have been told not to speak with him. How a family could reach this state is one question, but as he pursues the whys and reexamines his own memories, it is the search as much as the purpose of it which is most interesting to follow. Is he looking for a verification of his own sanity in a family short on just that? Is he looking for a reason why his marriage is in trouble? Is he trying to reconstruct a sense of family?
Or, is he in love with the search itself as a symbol of his own identity as a seeker? This last begins to seem more and more clearly the answer as the tale unfolds.
All of this is presented on a nearly empty stage by two men. One, the Dan played by Brian Henderson, becomes the protagonist on the quest, narrating his own story as he calls, writes, visits and pieces together with private detectives and psychics the story of himself. The other, the Dan played by Tim Cummings, is sometimes the argument inside the protagonist’s head, as well as becoming all the people on the other end of the quest’s questions and investigations, at least as Dan remembers them. For both men this is a tour-de-force, performed without intermission in an inexorable forward motion rife with adventure, anger, frustration, and a certain joy of the chase.
Director Michael Michetti wisely allows this tale to play out with a minimum of distraction and a maximum of the actors’ art. The set by Sara Ryung Clement is two chairs and two screens upon which are projected a few photos – some out of focus, which makes its own point – as well as innumerable drawings which illustrate the remembrances and mental architecture that the protagonist constructs. Indeed, these projections, designed by Tom Ontiveros, become, themselves, a character in the piece. What is real? What is dim recollection? What is conjecture? What is pure fantasy?
There is no doubt that the production is splendid, or that the script is articulate, complex and compelling. Henderson and most particularly Cummings create scene after scene out of words and the air. Yet the argument still lies in the question: to what purpose? Audience members will have differing answers depending on which spin they take from the start. My contention, obviously, is that this is a quest story. Indeed, the singular note of regret in this work comes as the answers appear to be found. To say more is to lessen the moment’s impact, but the overall feel is “Now what?”
“The House in Scarsdale” was workshopped at several prestigious institutions, including the Center Theatre Group, while in the process of completion. The results are fascinating watching, even if the ending is, at best, a hanging one.
What: The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage” When: through June 4, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with added $5 performance May 22 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 general, $34 seniors, $20 students Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com
At a time when the entire concept of white privilege is under a microscope, it becomes especially fascinating to explore the larger concepts of European/American imperialism and what that process has done to the world we now live in. Most particularly, what has been lost as several centuries of the practice interfered with the natural self-development of the peoples of the earth.
Which proves foundational to Aditi Brennan Kapil’s “Shiv,” now receiving its west coast premiere run at The Theatre at Boston Court. As the best introspective plays often are, this tale can be approached on a number of levels, but at its core it examines what is left behind when foundational cultures clash with dominant ones. It does so through the engaging story of one immigrant family from India.
Shiv is the daughter of a small-town Indian family. Her father was, back home, a celebrated anti-imperialist modernist poet. He raises his daughter on the stories of his upbringing in the home gifted to his family by local royalty. There his competitive nature had full sway, and his pride of place brought him to prominence.
Now he has come to the US, supposedly to give his daughter advantages in the western-controlled world, but at great cost to himself. His poetry does not translate well, and his daughter is left adrift, as both her father’s representative in this new world and the reminder of what he himself cannot do within it. All of this is seen through Shiv’s eyes, as she searches for the missing pieces of her father’s American narrative at the site of what were once a private publisher’s symposiums of Indian writers.
Which, of course, is only one level of the play. Symbolism proves key, and the mystical elements of Indian belief and culture mesh with motifs of light and power in ways which make the show a full-body experience. Unpacking these deeper elements may take a while, but the work is worth it.
Monika Jolly is Shiv, shifting back and forth from youth to adulthood with a seamlessness which underscores the central themes of the character’s struggles to balance the two parts of her life. Dileep Rao, as her father, manages to offer up external charm and internal desperation in the same breath, radiating hope toward his daughter at the same time as his own is evaporating in favor of cultural submission.
As the operator of the country estate once a center for supposed cultural awareness, James Wagner displays an openness which allows Shiv to move forward in her own explorations of her cultural identities. In balance to this, Leonard Kelly-Young speaks as the gut-wrenchingly absolute imperialist, deciding with western eyes what to value of eastern art, as the professor who owns this estate, where Shiv works and searches for answers to her father’s mysteries. Indeed, it is Kelly-Young’s powerful albeit brief performance which underlines all the ugliness toward which the play has built.
Under the direction of Emilie Beck, the production’s beautifully stark feel allows the many layered elements of this piece to coalesce. Stephanie Kerley-Schwartz’s imaginative setting allows Shiv’s character to float in her own imagination, tied only when she wants to be to the physical realities of the world around her. Tom Ontiveros’ integral video design fills the imagination and underscores the ethereal in the piece.
By the end one cannot help but wonder, as the characters do, what India or any other nation absorbed by western empire would have been like if left to mature on its own. Indeed one symbol near the end sticks in the mind as a visual of the disconnect between east and west: a snow globe holding a miniature Taj Mahal. As Shiv notes, why would there ever be snow on the Taj Mahal?
This, as with all things in this play, says many things at once. Yet, all of it proves engrossing from start to finish, and definitely worth the work of pondering after the fact. Go see “Shiv,” then take it home with you and let it steep awhile. The results will disturb the overly-confortable, but will voice what the modern world – American and otherwise – needs to hear.
What: “Shiv” When: Through August 9, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $29 seniors (62+)/students Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com