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The difficulties Asians experience assimilating Western ways make up the theme of Sue Townsend's 1984 play, The Great Celestial Cow. Well received in its London premiere, the work is rarely staged because of its casting requirements. Burning Coal Theatre Company's decision to produce the work is commendable for its relevance to current immigration issues and the Triangle's large Asian population. For some, the points being made will outweigh flaws in the script and staging, but a lot must be overlooked in this production to take home the message.
Townsend, best known for her Adrian Mole novels, was also a prolific playwright. The Great Celestial Cow came about from her years living in the Asian section of Leicester, England, where she observed cultures clashing, particularly among women.
In the play, Sita and her two children must leave their rural village in India to join her husband in Leicester, where he's worked the past five years to better their lives. Sita leaves behind a beloved cow, which becomes a symbol for her of an idyllic life forever lost. Her adjustment to different customs and attitudes is further complicated by conflicts within her own family. Her son, Prem, and daughter, Bibi, quickly adapt to their current environment and reject the old traditions. Sita experiences new freedoms encouraged by work colleagues and English neighbors, but her husband, Raj, his mother, Dadima, and his aunt Masi, expect Sita to follow the old ways despite their new situation.
Townsend finds humor in scenes such as Sita experiencing her first children's Christmas pageant and the grownup Bibi's purposely crazed reactions to meeting an arranged suitor. But there are also many scenes of prejudice (locals making fun of the family's English and customs) and despair (Sita's struggle with her husband's stern dominance).
Townsend mixes realistic scenes with monologues given directly to the audience and sequences of surreal nightmares. The 26 scenes spread over two acts are often short, making for a choppiness that breaks up momentum; it seems like Townsend is checking off a list of thematic topics. Still, the script has likable characters, engaging situations, and moving moments. But it needs astute direction, experienced actors, and inventive technical solutions, elements only partial achieved here.
On opening night, the production's pacing was often deadly. Whether from lack of rehearsal or lack of experience, the actors repeatedly responded to each other with lax timing and casual intent. Sonia Desai's direction was imprecise in its blocking, with actors often wandering uncomfortably within a scene. She used every corner and angle of the theater's thrust stage, but the scenes were often squeezed into small playing areas with actors blocking sightlines or facing away from the majority of the audience. The multiple scene changes were slow and poorly planned, breaking any feeling of forward motion. Sometimes it may have been to give actors time to change costumes, but, at other times, the crew took too much time rearranging benches and tables.
Neena Rai's costumes were a major asset, the colorful patterns and elegant designs of the women's saris and other Indian clothing adding welcome authenticity. Maranda Debusk's lighting provided warmth and shadows where necessary, giving Elizabeth Newton's backdrop setting of wooden-slatted walls a range of moods. Danielle James' props for the old world and new enhanced the visual elements, including a full-sized cow that, while immobile, seemed quite alive. Juan Isler's sound design gave atmosphere to various scenes, but in those with airplane noises, airport chatter, blaring disco music, and mooing cows, the volume levels competed with the dialogue.
The show's key pleasures rested on the shoulders of the female leads. Seema Kukreja's vibrant, sympathetic portrayal of Sita was engaging at every moment, expressing each emotion and reaction believably, whether nurturing her children, defying her husband, or fearing her mental state. Priya Singh displayed fine instincts as Bibi, making a believable pre-teen in the first act and a no-nonsense 20-year-old in the second act, determined not to be confined by Indian tradition. Maneesha Lassiter's Auntie Masi had sly humor, sassy boldness, and cheerful self-confidence. As Dadima, Sita's mother-in-law, Snehal Bhagwat projected old-world propriety, along with gossipy nosiness and love of family.
Anu Virkar rounded out the female Asian cast with a range of cameos, including a second family aunt, a photographer, a father, and a cow. Kelly Buynitzky played several male and female roles, including an airport official, a smarmy cattle auctioneer, and a particularly cold, uncaring mental hospital nurse. Pimpila Violette's six roles encompassed an Indian goddess, a Muslim girl, and Lila, Sita's co-worker and ready-for-anything friend.
The cast's three men were not as strong, each playing at their roles more than inhabiting them. Joey DeSena made recognizable distinctions among his five cameos, including a patronizing doctor and a tough market stall owner. Deepak Dhar's Raj was too hesitant and placid to fully embody the domineering husband. Darius Shafa's Prem was stereotypically naughty and selfish as the young version in act one, his tantrums on the floor bordering on slapstick, while in act two, his crass, money-obsessed adult was a one-note portrayal.
Not all actors were well versed in projection and enunciation, those attempting English accents not always successful.
There are thought-provoking takeaways and entertaining humor to be had from this production. It's a laudable step towards inclusion of more women and ethnic culture on Triangle stages. Nevertheless, its uneven staging makes one wish this rare scheduling of The Great Celestial Cow were up to Burning Coal's usual standards.
The Great Celestial Cow continues through Sunday, April 28. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.