The Banyan Tree: Three Easy Pieces

Alpa Dave and Madhura Nirkhe discuss fate in The Banyan Tree. Photo by Joe Iano.
Alpa Dave and Madhura Nirkhe discuss fate in The Banyan Tree. Photo by Joe Iano.


Lots of drama is ruined by good intentions. The dramatist begins a play with all its conclusions already made, stripped of ambiguity and complexity, and fashions speeches around a topic on which the audience is merely assumed to agree. Drugs are bad. Love is hard. War is evil. People are basically the same everywhere. The sentiments expressed are incontrovertible–and for that reason, incredibly dull. The earnestness behind so many plays serves not to cultivate but rather to aggravate anyone that resists the emotional bullying that drives them. I can think of several examples from the past season, the most obnoxious to me being Seattle Public Theater’s Superior Donuts.

This dullness is almost a pandemic on Seattle stages. Theaters everywhere promote it by formula. Choose plays that are safe: plays that have no controversy, plays that assuage the conscience, plays that fulfill deep-seated wishes of a powder-fresh universe without the stench of evil–plays that are, in short, kitsch. Offer subscriptions. Collect money. Claim it is a public service to offer such high art. Repeat cycle.

One way out of this is simple: tell people something they haven’t heard. Offer complexity rather than simplistic homilies, drama instead of speeches. Open up the world, rather than close it down. Defy expectations rather than meet them.

This is exactly the strength of ethnic theater at its best. At the very least, they tell people something they haven’t heard. Even the ethnic minorities these theaters serve have spent their lives often growing so used to seeing the stories of the mainstream–which in this town means primarily stories about middle-class pale people–that they hardly hear their own stories until they themselves begin to tell them.

Pratidhwani’s Agastya Kohli has been working to bring stories about Desi to Desi since at least his 2005 production of Hatyaare. This time he has moved away from staging plays from elsewhere and taken the step of commissioning a work about Desi in America, a little closer to home than the NYC setting of their 2011 production, Mother in Another Language. For Pratidhwani’s very first commission he has chosen an outstanding script for production.

That production is Tulika Kumar’s trilogy of short plays, The Banyan Tree.

It is easy to see why Mr. Kohli fell in love with these three plays. They are simple, direct, honest. Those words may sound slight in today’s climate of hyperbole and hipness, but I mean them in the most positive sense. Ms. Kumar has a keen eye for observing human details. Without a word at all, she can quickly sketch the cultural differences between transplanted parents and their American-born offspring, a strength that serves her well in the first two plays, The Palm Reader and The Banerjees Are Coming. Too, her knack for smart dialogue is extremely impressive, and she is helped throughout the evening by Mr. Kohli’s decision not to encourage the actors to wait for laughs. The wit is natural, rapid, and sharp, and if it flies by too fast to catch all at once–well then, that is a reason to watch the play twice.

What most impresses me about her plays, however, is not their moral observations or her gift for light comedy. What most impresses me is that Ms. Kumar knows when to stop. None of these plays is any longer than it needs to be to say what they say. Everything within them feels whole. More importantly, they avoid being trite. Given the subject matter of the second play, The Banerjees Are Coming, a weaker author would would have given the final word to a sympathetic character who carries the “message” of the play–viz., that people need to be accepted for who they are. Ms. Kumar works against that, and in doing so allows the play to be complex by being ambiguous. This is dramaturgy superior to three-quarters of the plays I have seen on stage this past year, quite impressive for a novice playwright.

Amrita Seera and Abhijeet Rane share a comic moment in The Banerjees Are Coming. Photo by Joe Iano.
Amrita Seera and Abhijeet Rane share a comic moment in The Banerjees Are Coming. Photo by Joe Iano.

In the first piece, The Palm Reader, Ms. Kumar subtly treats the theme of free will through two women who are both in loveless marriages. A younger woman, Niyati (the lovely Alpa Dave), comes to Anupama (played deftly by Madhura Nirkhe) for a palm reading. Anupama gives her the message that her marriage will end but that in the future she will be married and be happy for life. Niyati accepts this as fate, but Anupama insists there is no such thing, and that the marriage she sees lasting into the future may even be the one in which Niyati currently feels trapped. Life is always changeable, she says. In return, Niyati asks Anupama why, if life is changeable, she has settled into her own marriage and given up everything for it. The argument is subtle but clear: The older woman is trapped by tradition; the younger by her own expectations. In being American and free from the traditions of her ancestral homeland, Niyati represents a generation that proves Indian women can be independent, can be ambitious, can be free. In being deeply attached still to the Asian traditions, Anupama represents a generation that upholds values of family, community, contentment and faith that are eternal and vital to South Asian women. Each has something learn from the other.

Ms. Kumar conveys all this with a measured delicacy and a certain joy that is quite refreshing. She is helped greatly by the fine performances on stage. Alpa Dave handles the text fairly well, but she is even better with non-verbal business. Her facial expressions, her posture and her mannerisms convey things elliptically that would take a hundred words to explain otherwise. Arjun Dave and Abhijeet Rane are also good, but this play is really a tour de force for Madhura Nirkhe. Her charisma is obvious from the moment she first appears, and it is clear she understands her character thoroughly. She never overstates her emotion and through this restraint intensifies her effects.

The Banerjees Are Coming shows that Ms. Kumar can treat the very grave issue of coming out of the closet with delicacy and humor. The balance in the play between comedy and gravity strikes me as well-done: this is anything but a typical “message play.” The awkwardness of silence between father and son starts out as somewhat humorous but it quickly becomes obvious that the silence is an emblem of just how very little the father knows about his son (and how little he seems to care). The two men appear never to have had a real conversation in their lives. Vijay, the favorite son of the family, wants to know more about his father Jagdish, and eventually gets his father to tell him a story about himself, a riotous story about a hazing ritual from his college days. Then, as Vijay decides finally to tell his father he is gay, the tone of the play changes sharply. Jagdish is first confused, then shocked, then appalled, and eventually disowns his son, who slinks away into the infamous “other room” with his mother and sisters. It is all quite harsh and brutal. Had the play ended here, it would simply be a superficial treatment of the situation. What elevates it into a play of real power is the very end, all done without words, where the father takes his boy’s portrait as a teen off the mantelpiece in a rage then sits down with it and cries, not, one suspects, because he has failed but rather because he deeply loves his son yet cannot understand.

This is exactly the sort of ambiguity that other plays forget makes for real drama. No one here is “right.” No one here is “bad.” There are no glib messages here. There are simply human beings dealing with contradictory feelings–very much as in life itself.

The actors here are quite good. Amrita Seera adds an excellent levity to the proceedings as Mrs. Mishra, the archetypal annoying neighbor that seems to haunt everyone’s home. But just as the first piece was about the two women, this one is about the two men. Abhijeet Rane is excellent as the confused father whose view of the world suddenly crashes in on him. He plays his character with detachment at first, as though he is simply going through the motions of what is expected in his role as the head of the family. In doing so, he has become a cipher to his son. Behind this facade, though, there is a real sensitivity Mr. Rane conveys in fits and starts, which makes the play’s denouement even more powerful. His skill as a veteran actor is obvious. Abhi Sheth, on the other hand, is a rather young actor who displays certain young actor traits that occasionally weaken his performance. I should like to see him find other ways, for instance, of externalizing his moods than using inverted jazz hands. He also occasionally has a “Gee Whiz” quality to his vocal delivery when he speaks that makes some of his dialogue sound forced. Having said that, one cannot deny his pure charm. He works hard and his approach is completely genuine. Nothing about his characterization rings false and once “the moment” comes he slips into character completely and shows the calm of an old hand. He will, I think, become a very fine actor in time.

Fox Rain Matthews receives a lesson in not being a fly on the wall from Abhijeet Rane in United States vs. Nani Ji. Photo by Joe Iano.
Fox Rain Matthews receives a lesson in not being a fly on the wall from Abhijeet Rane in United States vs. Nani Ji. Photo by Joe Iano.

After The Banerjees Are Coming, the United States vs. Nani Ji comes as a welcome relief. The tone here is something of a hybrid of the first two plays: there is a very serious issue at the heart of it all, but just as surely as the material is serious the delivery is pure wit. Nani Ji is the mother of Krishna Sharma, who makes $400,000 a year in real estate. Nani Ji has been collecting $600 a month in government aid and finally comes up before the board on charges of fraud. Mr. Sharma argues that they have no case and sets out to show exactly how wrong they are to single out his mother in a world where corporations pay no taxes, banks receive taxpayer bailouts and oil companies make record profits with the help of government subsidies.

The excellence of this play is how completely hateful the arrogant Mr. Sharma seems throughout the whole proceedings. His arguments are completely irrelevant to the matter at hand. But just as one begins to think this person should be taken behind the shed and put down, Ms. Kumar reveals in a short and sweet interlude how this entire situation is one of great absurdity and yet hinges on such a delicate human frailty–that just because she is old does not mean that Nani Ji does not want her independence from her son–that it is impossible to dislike the antihero Sharma. One comes away with the sense that the whole situation the Sharmas, and Michael and Laxmi the legal counsel, find themselves in is completely ridiculous yet way beyond anything they can control, or even affect. It is a sour message, coated sweet with Ms. Kumar’s brilliant comedic wit.

The actors here are faultless. Payal Patel accomplishes much as Nani Ji by doing rather little. Her non-verbal business makes her verbal dialogue exponentially more hilarious. Fox Rain Matthews, whom I haven’t seen since The Taming of the Shrew at Greenstage plays the straight man with great aplomb and even greater panic. Sheeba Jacob is always lovely to see on stage, whether telling stories with Wes K. Andrews’ Verbalists group or lighting up the stage in Yoni Ki Baat. Given that her character is supposed to be heartless and fierce, she drops her mask easily to reveal the other side of her character as a passionate yet disenchanted crusader with great skill. The star here, however, is Abhijeet Rane, who gets to show his background in stand-up comedy to great effect through the obnoxious person of Krishna Sharma. Played by Mr. Rane, only a true Yahoo could dislike this extremely unlikeable character. His comedic timing is fantastic, yet it is his dramatic interlude that shows how truly fine an actor he is.

Director Agastya Kohli has used his cast to excellent advantage. Mr. Kohli clearly knows and loves the text and I think he sufficiently makes his cast love it as well. They play their best for him, without any appearance of merely going through the motions or of hamming it up, despite numerous opportunities to do so. Together with Mark Chenovick and Pallavi Garg, he has given these three plays each a distinct solidity. Mr. Chenovick’s set is filled with brilliant details that locate each of the three plays in a unique environment and Ms. Garg’s costumes show her keen sense of how to convey class and personality with economy.

The stage always needs good, honest stories. Ms. Kumar’s trilogy offers three excellent stories that are immediately familiar yet never hackneyed. They are models of how to tell stories about South Asian characters without exoticism or banality. They also offer a lucid glimpse into a world that exists well beyond the pale of tired clichés and bourgeois earnestness. Such worlds exist waiting to be discovered, ready to teach any attentive audience what is possible even within the simplest of means. Pratidhwani have excelled at this in their productions, and The Banyan Tree is no exception. I pray other groups take the hint.

Categories Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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