A Brimful of Asha
Where: Belfry Theatre
When: To March 17
Rating: Four stars (out of five)
A Brimful of Asha seems like a show that shouldn’t work. And yet, to its everlasting credit, it does.
Consider this: It stars Toronto actor/director Ravi Jain, which is fine. It also stars his mother, Asha Jain, who is not an actor. In fact, before A Brimful of Asha, she’d never set foot on stage.
The show consists of Ravi and Asha chatting — and sometimes politely arguing — at a kitchen table. They are mostly seated. Sometimes they drink tea. It is not, to say the least, a visual extravaganza.
Despite breaking a fistful of Theatre 101 rules, A Brimful of Asha somehow succeeds. It’s charming and funny. It convincingly gives us a sliver of insight into an aspect of traditional Indian culture that fascinates Westerners, that is, the arranged marriage. Added bonus: Audience members get a free samosa on the way in.
A Brimful of Asha, written by Ravi, is taken from a true story. At age 27, he visits India, partly to teach a theatre workshop, partly to tour the country for pleasure. His parents — Indian immigrants who’d settled in Toronto — decide this is the perfect opportunity to arrange his marriage to a nice Indian girl.
So mom and dad locate a suitable candidate in Bombay. And to make sure all goes well, they travel to India as well, disguising their matchmaking intentions by insisting theirs is also a pleasure trip.
Ravi agrees to an introductory meeting with bemused tolerance — he’s not going to marry anyone he’s just met. The going gets rockier, however, when his would-be bride (and her extended family) keeps showing up, jack-in-the-box style, at different cities on his journey through India. Ravi’s exasperation peaks when this happens after a particularly exhausting 14-hour train journey to Jaipur.
Ravi and Asha both narrate, with son acting as host as well, prompting his mother for certain anecdotes. The proceedings have an improvised feel. Her lack of stage experience is in no way disguised — at one point on Tuesday night, he suggested she address audience members to her right as well as her left.
Shrewdly, Ravi has conceived of this 90-minute (no intermission) piece as an intimate, homespun affair. To make us feel we’re entering the Jains’s kitchen, we were invited onstage at the beginning to shake hands and eat a samosa. Ravi’s notion is to present his mother as an ordinary person. She cannot act, but then again, we don’t expect people we encounter socially to present themselves as actors, do we?
Asha, wearing a fushia sari and a terrific smile, seems a lovely woman. On this night, she spoke too quietly, which detracted from the show. I also think Ravi (who directs) might have encouraged her to move around; her being mostly seated creates a static atmosphere.
A Brimful of Asha’s lack of theatricality is its biggest drawback. A too-small screen shows images of family photos and more. More could be made of this — a judicious use of added images (and perhaps videos) would create a visual vitality now lacking. The show also could use editing — trimming 15 minutes would sharpen the pace.
That said, this is touching, compelling theatre. Asha’s calm defence of Indian tradition is surprisingly convincing. When her son says he must know a potential bride for at least six months before marriage, Asha replies that she didn’t know Ravi before he was born. And that was no impediment to her loving him. There is a certain logic to this.
A Brimful of Asha is intended to not only amuse, but provide a keyhole look into Indian culture. This gentle show exudes a truth, grace and humanity theatergoers will not forget.
© Copyright 2013