Stage Door Review 2023


Thursday, May 4, 2023


by Pamela Mala Sinha, directed by Alan Dilworth

Necessary Angel Theatre Company with Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre & Canadian Stage, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto

April 28-May 14, 2023

Nuzha: “There is no happen”

Pamela Mala Sinha’s latest play New, a co-pro by Necessary Angel with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre and Canadian Stage, has a fascinating story arc as far as concerns one of its seven characters. The other six characters, however, are not fully explored and their stories confused or even contradictory. Even though the level of acting is high and the pacing taut under director Alan Dilworth, the play itself, other than providing a glimpse into the life of South Asians in Winnipeg, is not fully satisfying.

The setting is an apartment in Winnipeg in 1970. Lorenzo Savoini’s set depicted from stage right to left a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom, stretches the entire width of the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Theatre (formerly the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs). The play’s clever conceit is that all three apartments where the action takes place are located in the same building and have the same floor plan. We thus need only look at the projected title above the set to know whose apartment we’re in.

The play begins in the apartment of Qasim, who is on the phone with his mother back home. They are discussing the young woman, Nuzha, whom Qasim’s mother and her best friend have arranged for Qasim to marry and who will soon arrive in Canada. Immediately afterwards, Qasim’s Caucasian girlfriend Abby arrives and it is clear from their behaviour that they have been a steady couple for some time and that Abby knows nothing about Qasim’s arranged marriage. After she arrives, Qasim will have nothing to do with Nuzha and Abby will have nothing to do with Qasim.

Interleaved with the story of Qasim and Nuzha are the stories of their close friends, the married couples Sachin and Sita and Ash and Aisha. The cloud hanging over Sachin and Sita’s marriage is the death at birth of their only child, a daughter. Sita has not gotten over her grief at the loss and doesn’t want to get over it as it is all that reminds her of her baby. She has not let Sachin near her for seven years because she can’t bear to experience the same suffering again.

Meanwhile, Ash and Aisha are trying to lead a more modern life. Aisha is an outspoken feminist yet her family back home keeps asking when she will have a baby. Though Aisha hates this pressure, she still is extremely conscious of when the best time is for her to conceive and keeps informing Ash of the fact.

The main difficulty with the play is that too many scenes lead nowhere and the solutions to the three couples’ problems come about through outside circumstances rather than the characters’ interactions with each other. Given that Qasim won’t sleep with Nuzha and Sita won’t sleep with Sachin, it seems only natural that Nuzha and Sachin will get together. Sinha does have the two make overtures to each other in Act 2 and suggests that the two have an affair, but unlike any other play, this affair has no repercussions and Sinha never mentions it again after it begins.

The central problem between Sachin and Sita is resolved through an outside event. Sinha would have us believe that Sita’s satisfaction with this event is the end of their story, but anyone else should be able to see that mentally adopting someone else’s child is not going to solve Sachin’s desire to have his own child.

Sinha has also not quite sorted out Aisha’s view on having a baby. Sometimes she doesn’t want to. Sometimes she emphatically does want to. Near the very end of the play Ash makes an important revelation that Sinha tries to treat as the conclusion to the story of Ash and Aisha. In any other play this revelation would be a turning point in the middle of their story not the ending.

The solution to Nuzha’s problem with Qasim’s coldness is solved simply by the course of time and by a lucky outside incident. It’s true that Qasim and Nuzha have to take the final step, but that is only after Nuzha’s excursions into the outside world have changed her.

If the stories of two of three couples are not satisfactorily resolved, a further flaw is the presence of scenes that do not move the action forward. Sinha has the characters make a great fuss over Sita’s desire to celebrate the puja of raksha bandan to make Qasim her adopted brother and thus have him share the responsibility for her protection. It is all very interesting to see this rite performed on stage, but Sinha makes no use of Qasim’s symbolic brotherhood of Sita anywhere else in the play. Dramatically, the ceremony serves mostly as an excuse to have Abby see Nuzha and confront Qasim with a choice between Nuzha or her.

An example of the driest scene that goes nowhere is when Sinha has Ash and Aisha read passages of books to each other. Aisha reads a from The Female Eunuch (1970) by Germaine Greer. Ash reads from Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) by Richard Bach. In another play these passages could be used as the start of a discussion about self-realization which both Ash and Aisha seek in different ways. But Sinha merely gives us the two passages and nothing more.

Sinha largely presents us characters defined by just one or two traits. The one intriguing character is Nuzha. Mirabella Sundar Singh is excellent at portraying Nuzha’s gradual development over the course of the action. She gives us Nuzha at the start shy, hesitant, overwhelmed by arriving in a strange new country. Singh shows us Nuzha’s pain in realizing that her new husband wants to act as if she didn’t exist. Nevertheless, the Nuzha we first meet is not the person Nuzha really is. Singh shows how Nuzha realizes she will have to create a life for herself and we are as happy as Nuzha is when she finds a means of independence. Director Alan Dilworth and Singh make Nuzha’s journey the backbone of the entire play.

It is too bad, then, that some of the characters surrounding Nuzha are so underwritten. Ali Kazmi, who has become so much in demand lately, gives us a seemingly comic picture of a Muslim drinking and smoking while he talks about sharia law with his mother back home. The character of Qasim, however, is not comic and even an actor as fine as Kazmi can’t make any sense of him.

We understand that Qasim agrees to marry Nuzha due to family pressure. But how, unless Qasim has the mentality of a child, does he justify his totally ignoring Nuzha after she arrives? Is he angry with his family and thus takes it out on Nuzha? And how long is this fit of sullenness supposed to last? How can Qasim keep up his shutting out Nuzha without once noticing her abundant good qualities? Whatever motivation Qasim has for his actions remains unknown. Even more peculiar is that no member of Qasim’s tight-knit group of friends sees fit to mention to him how unfair his ill-treatment of Nuzha is until nearly the end of the play.

Eventually, Sinha does have Qasim notice, but it happens suddenly and without any transition from his previous churlishness. This takes away any chance Kazmi might have of depicting a gradual transition in Qasim’s feelings as Singh does with Nuzha.

As Abby, Alicia Johnston speaks in a harsh voice and, unlike the other actors, shouts rather than projects. Johnston, thus, establishes a stark difference between Abby and Nuzha but not at all to Abby’s advantage. When later Johnston appears as a different character, she distinguishes the two so little I thought she was still playing Abby but at some sort of party.

Sinha’s portraits of the play’s two other couples are really only sketches. In the couple Sachin and Sita, we know almost nothing about Sachin except that he is a kind man and that is all Fuad Ahmed has to work with. Even the suggested affair between Sachin and Nuzha does not allow Ahmed to show another side to Sachin.

Sinha has not even written a well-rounded role for herself as Sita. As an actor Sinha shows us that Sita is a perfectionist and has permitted her grief to define her. Both characteristics have left her with a severely circumscribed life which Sita is not willing to acknowledge, though Sachin points it out to her. As with Qasim depicting a gradually transition to self-knowledge would make Sita a more engaging figure, but as with Qasim, Sinha has Sita’s change occur suddenly at the end and the reasons for this change are not even satisfactory.

As for the couple of Ash and Aisha, Sinha depicts them at first as the only one of the three couples who is happy in their marriage. Soon enough, however, we find this is not the case. Dalal Badr has the impossible task of making the contradictory character of Aisha make sense. On the one hand Aisha agrees with Germaine Greer that the traditional nuclear family makes a woman into a “female eunuch”. On the other, Aisha is unusually preoccupied with trying to have a baby. Badr does her very best but even by projecting a strong personality she still can’t put these opposite sides of Aisha together.

Shelly Antony has the misfortune of playing Ash, the character Sinha has thought about least. Like Sachin, all Ash appears to be is a generic nice guy. Only near the very end of the play does Sinha allow Ash to reveal more about himself, but by then it is far too late to develop his character further. It would have been fascinating to see how Antony would play Ash in relation to other characters given this new information, but Sinha gives him no chance to do so.

New is the third play in recent months, along with Sanaz Toossi’s English (2022) and Paula Vogel’s Indecent (2015), to use the technique of characters speaking in unaccented English to represent their speaking in their native language, in contrast to speaking accented English to represent their speaking in English. Like the cast in Studio 180’s Indecent and unlike the cast in Soulpepper’s English, the cast of New is scrupulous in making this distinction so that we do always know when the characters are speaking Bengali and when they are not.

A person could regard Sinha’s New simply as a slice of life of a South Asian community in the Winnipeg of 1970, interesting because both Muslims and Hindus live together in harmony unlike their counterparts back in their home countries. It would be fascinating if Sinha had explored further why this émigré community lives together in peace when we know that émigrés unfortunately often bring with them the prejudices they had in the places they left. But, like so much in New, Sinha leaves this topic untouched. Sinha has Qasim declare that he supports the Radcliffe Line (the border between India and Pakistan and India and Bangladesh) and no one says a thing, even though it is known the Line was conceived and implemented in haste and has been a source of conflict since 1947.

As it is, the one interesting story in New, the journey to self-knowledge of Nuzha, is buried in a series of directionless scenes featuring two-dimensional characters. If New is to fulfil its initial potential, it needs much more work.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Dalal Badr as Aisha, Fuad Ahmed as Sachin, Ali Kazmi as Qasim, Pamela Mala Sinha as Sita, Mirabella Sundar Singh as Nuzha and Shelly Antony as Ash; Fuad Ahmed as Sachin, Pamela Mala Sinha as Sita, Shelly Antony as Ash, Alicia Johnston as Abby, Mirabella Sundar Singh as Nuzha, Dalal Badr as Aisha and Ali Kazmi as Qasim; Mirabella Sundar Singh as Nuzha. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.

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