Identity, Heritage, and Growing up in ‘Muthaland’

Muthaland at 16th Street Theater is a one woman show written and performed by the talented Minita Gandhi. It’s a showcase for her dexterity and ability to create and inhabit characters we love, and characters who make our skin crawl, as she goes on a journey to her parents homeland. In 16th Street’s bare black box theatre, there is only one practical light onstage, and the rest of the show travels on in the darkness with Minita herself. She walks down the staircase through the audience carrying her suitcases to the practical standing lamp on stage. Little did we know she was carrying the world of the play in her arms.

The opening of Minita Gandhi’s Muthaland is an energy-packed celebration of femininity and personality. She animatedly tells us about her life, her hopes for love and her family drama, which includes the upcoming wedding of her dear brother Milin. Minita separates herself as narrator by giving herself the affectionate nickname of Minu when she’s playing in a scene from history.

Minu is an independent woman, the daughter of two Indian immigrants who are audience favorites for Minita to affectionately and sometimes comedically interpret onstage. She is 35 years old, and has been getting her groove back by listening to Pink and Fiona Apple, reading The Power of Now and taking a Pranayama breathing class. After a visit to a gynecologist, Minu learns she only has two years to get a husband and have babies before she has to be concerned about freezing her eggs, and this is a terrifying enough thought that she returns to her prayer cabinet. Minu is a practicing Jain, which at more 85,000 years old is the one of the world’s oldest religions. She recites the Namokar mantra, one of the most fundamental and spiritually significant prayers in Jainism. This moment of gravitas is our first insight into bubbly actress Minu’s depth of intention and spiritual practice.

Though dramatically this is very clever, sometimes Minita playing an earlier, more innocent Minu is hard to buy. At the end of the production, when a you see a grown Minita in her mature fury and might, you understand why this character, that is so very personal and so profoundly changed in real life, might be harder for Minita to access than the multitude of personalities she brings to life onstage. These other characters are defined very specifically through gesture and voice, and it is clear who is speaking at any given time.

Minita the writer gives us access to the finer points in her life and family’s traditional customs in a delicate way that allows us to laugh at Minu’s reactions without laughing at cultural differences – which can often happen if an audience doesn’t understand something outright. Milin for example is in an arranged marriage, something Minu has a really hard time understanding at first, but once she sees how happy he is the audience is happy for him too. So, Minu is off to India, in one of the most fantastic visual moments of the play. Contained in her tiny suitcase is truly the entire world, as she pulls out costumes and scatters the stage with color as the lights (designed by Cat Wilson) flood the world with a pink and orange hue, transforming the black walls. You can feel the heat and the dust as Minu describes it to us thanks to the vivid text and suggestive design visuals. The sound also helps us understand our cultural context, as a variety of American and Bollywood love songs are played throughout the piece.

Muthaland is based off of Minita’s true experiences during her travels to India, and I do not want to spoil the surprise that is the crux of the drama in this play. I will speak to her magnificent performance of these gravity-filled moments. During a scene I will refer to as “The Interrogation” she masterfully plays a council of older Indian men who are questioning her honesty with a misogyny that will make your toes curl. Legs spread wide in a single spotlight, Minita easily embodies the threat and danger of these men as a steady heart-beat like pulse (sound by Barry Bennett) underscores their words. It conjures visceral memories of femmes being accused of lying when under threat from men, and is very hard to watch though artfully portrayed. The experience is so awful, that when it is over, it prompts Minu to tell her parents she hates India – thankfully only a temporary conclusion.

Muthaland is about the forcible growth of an already strong young woman, who was forced to undergo an emotionally and physically violent experience yet still reconcile her identity. In a spectacular final ten minutes of the play, Gandhi goes on an emotional journey from absolute devastation to a realistic healing process, perhaps even slightly optimistic about what is in her future. I commend Minita for her stamina in performing in this fabulous 90-minute production of her own work, and I can’t wait to see what productions lie in its future.

BIAS ALERT: Minita Gandhi is a friend.

Berwyn Cultural Center
6420 16th Street, Berwyn IL
August 31-October 7, 2017
Directed by Heidi Stillman
Photos by Anthony Aicardi

Assistant Director – Maeli Goren
Dramaturg – Lavina Jadhwani
Voice and Movement – Lanise Antoine Shelley
Scenic Properties – Jesse Gaffney
Lighting Design – Cat Wilson
Sound Design – Barry Bennett

A Phenomenal and Heartbreaking ‘Lela & Co.’ Extends at Steep

By Hallie Palladino

Steep Theatre has just extended its devastating and urgently important play, Lela & Co. I wanted to take a moment to recommend this production and encourage people to see it now that it has been extended through September 16th.

I feel so fortunate to have seen Cruz Gonzales-Cadel play Lela in this heartbreaking two-hander opposite Chris Chmelik. Gonzales-Cadel has phenomenal range. We immediately fall in love with Lela as she disarms us with her charm and draws us into her story.We start in Lela’s childhood home with a loving mother and a father who alternates between indulgent and abusive. The limited abilities of women to shield each other from harm is a theme established early. As the dangers around her multiply, we watch Lela transform from an innocent child into a determined and courageous woman. For his part, Chmelik plays a host of villains, each fully fleshed out, each differently evil. Written by the British playwright Cordelia Lynn when she was just twenty-six, Lela is original in every way. Lynn speaks the unspeakable and holds us all accountable.

I won’t describe or summarize the story because much of its dramatic value is in its surprises. We never know what’s about to happen and, like Lela, we feel powerless to stop the cascade of horrors that unfold as she recounts her story. I’ve never felt so much real fear, rage and despair in the theater. A big part of it was knowing, more than a play, what happens to Lela is happening to to girls and women around the world every day.

Lela examines the way women become casualties of war showing how their stories are coopted, their voices silenced and their abuse marginalized. The narrative style creates the experience of being inside the head of a women who has internalized the narrative of her abusers along side the truth of her lived experience. This gives the audience an opportunity to experience the cognitive dissonance that results from trauma. The tone of Robin Witt’s direction creates jarring juxtapositions between the events that happen to Lela and the way she describes them. Lela uses a range of coping techniques from detachment, to rationalization, to minimizing, to self-blame. All the time as her underlying grief, rage and pain are straining to be let out. By the time Lela hits its crescendo and the playwright allows her character to enact a desperately longed for moment of confrontation all the air goes out of the room.

The space has been transformed into an intimate café with limited cabaret style seating and the actors perform on raised platforms above our heads. The action happens around the audience so we’re immersed and therefore implicated in Lela’s predicament. All the design elements seamlessly support this atmosphere of fear and claustrophobia.

I must end with a really big trigger warning here. There is graphic sexual violence both portrayed and discussed. This play deals plainly with some of the darkest subject matter I’ve ever heard onstage. Lela explicates the economic and political circumstances of war and how they enable the exploitation of women. Lynn’s story also reveals the tragic irony of how third party “liberating” and “peacekeeping” forces in conflict zones participate in crimes against women. No, Cordelia Lynn’s play isn’t easy to watch, but it is essential.

BIAS ALERT: Cruz and I know each other from Something Marvelous and have bonded over having children around the same age. Likewise, I know Peter Moore, Steep’s Artistic Director, because our kids were in the same class and I’ve submitted my work to his literary department. All this just means I was already a fan of the theater and of Cruz before I went to see this play.

Extended through September 16th!

CAST:
Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel
Chris Chmelik

PRODUCTION TEAM:
Director – Robin Witt*
Stage Manager – Lauren Lassus**
Set Design – Joe Schermoly
Lighting Design – Brandon Wardell**
Sound Design – Thomas Dixon**
Costume Design  – Jessica Kuehnau Wardell
Prop Design – Maria DeFabo**
Fight Choreography – Christina Gorman
Dramaturg – Carina Abbaticchio
Assistant Directors – Michael Rogerson & Isabel Perry
Production Manager – Julia Siple*

*Denotes Steep Company Member
**Denotes Steep Artistic Associate

‘We’re Gonna Die’ at Haven Theatre Electrifies Audiences

(Photo Credit: Austin D. Oie)

By Regina Victor

Before I embark on writing the review for We’re Gonna Die, written by Young Jean Lee and directed by Josh Sobel for Haven Theatre company, I have to explain the circumstances under which I am seeing and writing about this show. I am writing this review on the way home from my grandfather’s funeral. A few hours before opening curtain for We’re Gonna Die on May 7th, 2017, my grandfather died. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the show that evening.

I am so glad I got there.

When you first walk into the Den and take a left into the Bookspan Theatre occupied by Haven and named after Artistic Director Josh Sobel’s aunt, Janet Bookspan, you are greeted with the sweet scent of a smoky haze machine. The entry to the space is plastered with pop and punk posters, and as I left the antique stylings of the Den lobby I felt like I’d walked into an independent rock show. The audience has the option of sitting at low, cabaret-style tables and being right up on the action (as I chose to do), or sitting in the more traditional bleacher-style seating. No matter where you sit, you can see the faces of everyone watching the show with you, which seems like an intentional effort to support the intimacy of this play.

We’re Gonna Die is an ode to living and dying, guided by the Singer, Isa Arciniegas, whose alto voice is versatile enough to go from sweet ballad to angsty rock song. Isa captured the crowd with her stamina and ability within the first ten minutes, as she effortlessly got the audience on board for the cabaret-style of the show. She never lost confidence or momentum and moved deftly through the witty and emotional text, trusting that the audience was smart enough to keep up with her. It’s a crucial first ten minutes in a compact play, running under an hour and a half with no intermission.

The design world of We’re Gonna Die fused effortlessly with the text. The simple stage (set design by Mike Mroch) ) and punky costumes (Izuma Inaba) were effective, I couldn’t help but think of Rosie The Riveter when looking at the red bandanna and brunette ponytail on “lady-drummer Sarah [Giovanetti]” as Isa affectionately called her during the opening performance. The play’s title We’re Gonna Die is cleverly turned into a band logo (WGD) that is stitched into Isa’s jacket and displayed in neon lights behind them.  But the most notable aspect of the design was the lighting crafted by Claire Chrzan, who hung a multitude of household lamps  above our heads mixed in amongst stage lights, making  the lights themselves just as intriguing to look at as the stage they were lighting. The play consists of various stories from people’s lives, and I couldn’t help wondering if these lamps had sat in their living rooms and now lived again as homage to them and part of this show. I could have spent the show watching the lamps dim in and out, but the ensemble is too ferociously entertaining to allow it.

As a performer and musician myself, I know one of the hardest things in the world is to act and be in a band at the same time. In such intimate proximity to the audience, I was probably five feet away from the nearest musician, all the band members are closely watched and can’t fudge any notes or lose their cool. I have never been so impressed. Elle Walker’s poise while playing the keys and confident tosses of her long brunette hair during an exuberant and carefree dance solo ensure she grabs the spotlight at choice moments in the show. Jordan Harris possesses a beautiful singing voice, their solo moment is only one line but I was struck by the melodic tendencies of their voice. Last but certainly not least is Spencer Meeks’ beautifully messy eyeliner, and funky scene-stealing guitar solos. On the night I saw it, they also had a standout improvised moment about how their Green Goddess veggie drink was not the best choice for hydrating during a rock concert. I can happily report that hydrated or not, Spencer’s vocal talent as they harmonized on various songs was still excellent . Every person in the ensemble not only had great stand-out moments, they were serving every second of the show!

The twists and turns of Young Jean Lee’s emotional journey are best left unsaid so that you can be as delighted and devastated by them as I was. The show is compiled of true stories collected through interviews, and through their specificity they give the audience a place in each anecdote. One sentiment that I feel was perfectly captured here was the (dare I say the word?) millennial sense of being special, and deserving of immunity from tragedy, while also being perfectly aware of one’s imminent mortality. It is a reality in this new world that each of us is more empowered than we’ve ever been and simultaneously just as helpless to our mortality as ever.

Despite this feeling of millennial immortality, as the play says if you are a person there will be a day when you die. When your time comes, that is your time. Instead of being a depressing realization I found it galvanizing. My grandfather has 12 grandchildren while being an aeroengineer as a black man in the 1950’s and 1960’s. As sure as we are of death, we can also be sure that our full lives will affect those we leave behind, and that our stories will be told. I came to this show with the rawest open heart, and I left with a sense of how important life is, and how important it is to record the history of those lives and immortalize ourselves through art.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at We’re Gonna Die, and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in a fun punk show about living and dying. The remarkable direction of Josh Sobel, artistic director of Haven Theatre, moves easily from deep tragedy to big joy (remember – I said dance sequence!!). Lucky for you, it’s been extended to June 10th, so be sure to get your tickets ASAP if you’re interested in this fun rock production!

http://haventheatrechicago.com/were-gonna-die/

Isa Arciniegas – SINGER

Spencer Meeks – GUITAR / BASS

Sarah Giovannetti – DRUMS

Jordan Harris – KEYBOARD

Elle Walker – KEYBOARD

Kamille Dawkins – SINGER u/s

 

PRODUCTION

Playwright – Young Jean Lee

Director – Josh Sobel

Music Director – Spencer Meeks

Scenic Design – Mike Mroch

Costume Design – Claire Chrzan

Sound Engineer – Archer Curry

Choreography – Jon Martinez

Production Management – Krista Mickelson

Stage Management – Julia Leghorn

Assistant Director – Abhi Shrestha

Assistant Production Manager – Corbin Paulino

Master Electrician – Cedar Larson

Technical Direction – Alan Weusthoff

Graphic Design – Jenifer Dorman

 

Production photos by Austin D. Oie