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Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Love, Loss and Letting Go: the pattern of life in Rice Boy

Rice Boy
By Sunil Kuruvilla, Directed by Guillermo Verdecchia
Featuring Deena Aziz, Raoul Bhaneja, Anita Majumdar, Araya Mengesha, Sam Moses

The Story: Set in the 1970s, 12-year-old, Canadian-born Tommy questions why his father takes them back to India, where he has a hard time adjusting to the culture. He bonds with his older cousin Tina, a paraplegic who is about to be married but who has never left her home. Together they sneak out and discover a world foreign to both of them while the adults at home try to sort out their messy lives.

Upon reading the notes for Rice Boy, based on past productions of the play, one could expect to see a play about an Indian immigrant’s dilemma in Canada. Or about a Canadian’s dilemma in moving to India. With this latest rewrite of Sunil Kuruvilla’s Rice Boy, one gets neither, so look at the people inside the saris and find an altogether more universal quandry. The costumes, music and lighting all deceive one into thinking this is a play about India, but it is not.

Each character is haunted. Father, played by Raoul Bhaneja (far right), still wonders about his wife who drowned ten years earlier. Grandfather (Sam Moses, right), sleepwalks because he lost his wife three months ago and must find her. Uncle (Sanjay Talwar) is obsessed with the thought that his wife will leave him for another man after Tina’s wedding, but his wife (Auntie, played by Deena Aziz) cannot forget his emotional infidelity. Their servant girl (Asha Vijayasingham) clings to thoughts of former romance with her estranged husband, and back in Canada a grieving father (Jonathan Purdon) is haunted by an image on a milk carton.
Only two characters remain pragmatic. Fish Seller (Anand Rajaram) is Servant Girl’s estranged husband, but has moved on from their relationship. Tina (Anita Majumdar) pushes her family’s buttons, gets her own way, taunts her young cousin and finally - disappears. We are not told what happens to her, and the mystery is what haunts Tommy (Araya Mengesha) back in Canada.

Looking at Rice Boy from this perspective the stories are all too familiar, and while there are occasional references to math professors being underemployed in fast-food joints, the immigrant’s dilemma is not at the heart of this revision.

Anita Majumdar gives a Tina a surprising edge, sometimes as bratty as Tommy, other times betraying a strength that would not hold her back but for the use of her legs. Raoul Bhaneja and Araya Mengesha (left, with Sam Moses) have a great dynamic as Father and Tommy. Mr. Mengesha pulls off a 12-year-old’s brattiness, curiosity and budding rebellion very well, and Mr. Bhaneja is great as the anxious father who – for the most part – puts on a brave act in front of the others. It is his newfound ability to move on, realized at the end of the play, which reconciles he and Tommy, and gives the audience faith that a new balances can be struck, and new happiness discovered.

All the while, the intricate rice-flour kolam patterns are created and then swept away, a metaphor for the play’s ultimate truth, that “things are transitory and should be celebrated and embraced for their impermanence”. I do not know if former versions of this play focused more on assimilation issues, but this one has a very simple message - seize the day, but then let it go.

Rice Boy continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until October 3.

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