Brilliantly chilling, interlaced with upbeat Bollywood music and perfectly described by the artistic director Eric Ting as a “pop-culture, action-adventure-romance,” Cal Shakes’ “House of Joy” is a unique treasure with the modern pace, relevance and appeal of your favorite Netflix show.
Written by internationally acclaimed playwright Madhuri Shekar, “House of Joy” marks the spectacular continuation of Cal Shakes’ New Classics Initiative, which aims to expand and enhance the classical theatrical canon by uplifting the works of living playwrights with diverse contemporary perspectives and experiences.
Filled with secretive political power plays, violent manipulation and heartwarming, sexually fluid love stories, the inspiration for “House of Joy” included graphic novels, India’s imperial upheavals and the 2016 American presidential election, among other things. As dramaturg Vidhu Singh relayed in her pre-show presentation, Shekar “uses history as her playground to speak about things in our contemporary moment she finds terrifying.”
Gorgeous jewel-encrusted costumes designed by the laudable theater designer Oana Botez and set design by Lawrence E. Moten III, featuring great double gates framed in an intricate floral wooden lattice position the fantastical stage in “something like” the Mughal Empire’s imperial harem and “sometime like” the 17th century, during famines in India.
The titular “House of Joy” is a prosperous, imperial harem filled with beautiful gardens and lavish extravagances. Excepting the good-hearted Doctor Thermometer, played by the instantly likeable Raji Ahsan, all men and troubles of the outside world are strictly barred in body and thought from the self-proclaimed paradise.
Incredible powerhouse female harem guards Hamida (Emma Van Lare) and Roshni (Sango Tajima) launch the production with a refreshingly open dive into fluid sexualities by playing the popular contemporary game ‘Fuck, Marry, Kill’ in the play’s opening scene with the beautiful harem girls they protect. Showcasing an excitingly relatable and intimate female friendship, the duo ignites high energy throughout.
Seemingly idyllic, the House of Joy’s restrictions afford surprising acceptance, empowerment and freedom from patriarchal structures for many of its employees. Hamida and Roshni have respected jobs in the elite all female harem guard, and the charismatic Salima, played by the truly captivating Rotimi Agbabiaka, wields an immensely powerful position in the Mughal Empire while being open about being “neither man nor woman.” However, as the House of Joy’s veneer of perfection begins to peel, revealing the rot underneath, these characters must negotiate their complicity in the chilling injustice of the empire’s exploitation.
Fight director Dave Maier stoked the already fast-paced and physical nature of the production with several innovative Marvel-esque training sequences. Wielding long sticks, Hamida and Roshni practiced highly synchronized yet unpredictable combat maneuvers while facing out toward the audience; the powerful choreography was performed with such expertise and conviction that subtle outlines of invisible assailants seemed to manifest.
Lipica Shah plays the complicated and dynamic Princess Noorah, giving vital humanity and consideration to the character whose tale ends with the most moral obscurity. Also, Raji Ahsan gives lively nuance to the unequivocally trustworthy Doctor Thermometer with a contemporary bearing, humor and style of speech that distinguishes the doctor as a commoner and outsider from the harem workers, who generally carry themselves with more formality.
Simultaneously dark and troubling, joyful and poignant, Cal Shakes’ “House of Joy” is ultimately a must-see because of its small but incredibly powerful seven person cast. Cal Shakes continues to be its own best advocate by making brave choices and casting the right people to honor timely and consistent source material.