THE HOUSE OF JOY at San Diego Repertory, sadly, had a very short production run. It opened on Wednesday, March 11th and by the end of the day of March 12th, the production was closed. Not because of any fault of the show, but due to this little thing called COVID-19, perhaps you’ve heard of it?
While you can’t see the show, the cast and crew worked much too hard for it to go unacknowledged.
Written by playwright Madhuri Shekar HOUSE OF JOY covered a lot of ground; the impact of individual choices, sexual politics, treachery, and cultural norms. This play featured an expressive cast, fight battles, and visually striking costuming. What else does a kick-butt fairytale need?
It is the 1600’s there is a civil war going on as two brothers fight one another for the throne, and their sister, Princess Noorha (a royally charismatic Mondis Vakili), is left to play politics between her father and her warring brothers. Set in the Emperor’s Imperial Harmen in India, the story follows those who live and work in this opulent and pampered life. While some are royalty born like Princess Noorah some are forced into it like Queen Mariyam (Tamara Rodriguez as a lovely flower with a steel spine) who was married to the emperor against her will. Eunuch Salima (played with cleverness and cunning by Shaun Tuazon) who arrived as a child salve now runs the place with an iron will, and the female bodyguards, led by Gulal (a stern Ulka Simone Mohanty) are there to protect everyone within from whatever may be outside.
Palace guards Hamida (a convincing Devereau Chumrau) and her patrol partner Rashni (a very funny and feisty TaiReika L.A.) are trying to keep their patrol interesting by telling jokes and asking probing and silly questions to each other when they see a woman and child trying to run and get outside. When they stop her Hamida is surprised to see that is it Queen Mariym (Rodriguez) who, though she is the emperor’s favorite, finds that no matter how many times they repeat “This is paradise” she finds the gilded cage to be more of a prison.
More complications for Hamida arise when the doctor Thermometer (a sympathetic Karthik Srinivasan) comes to assess Mariyam’s health, and in the process helps Hamida better process what is going on in the world outside.
What follows next is an adventure story with lots of humor and a battle for and against power inside the harem. Like most epic tales the story touches upon how one decides what is right and what is wrong, female empowerment, and the ramifications of the choices you make.
Played in a theatre in the round allowed the most room for the fight and dance choreography. Fight Direction by Edgar Landa was a lot of fun to watch as it goes from group battles, and orderly drills, to no-holds-barred street fighting, including biting. Ka’imi Kuoha displayed some ferocious martial arts prowess through some deceptively pretty kicks and moves that had her flying through the air. Deepti Kingra-Mickelsen leads the ensemble with some lovely dancing
Costumes by Jennifer Brawn Gittings are lovely, with the royals bejeweled and glittering in the light while the bodyguards are more function first, but still conveying the fairytale adventure feeling of the direction by Sam Woodhouse and Arpita Mukherjee. Scenic design by Yoon Bae gives the cast a beautifully colored background with ample room for plotting, fighting, and dancing.
The plot can feel a bit uneven, especially when as it touches upon serious topics like the caste system for a moment and then moves on. The side plot of a love story between Hamida and Thermometer feels superfluous when they each already have sufficient motivation for their actions.
The real love story is the funny and unswerving friendship between Hamida and Roshni, who both accept each other’s decisions even if it’s not what they would do. It is refreshing to see an epic quest featuring bonds between females who are also smart, driven, and formidable.
As it comes to an end, with each individual deciding what to do with an army at the harem gates, the HOUSE OF JOY closes on a picture of formidable females, each a warrior in their own way.
San Diego Repertory Theatre currently has no shows in production per the guidelines of the California Department of Public Health. For information on their next show when they reopen please go to www.sdrep.org
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