By DAVID DIXON | Downtown News
Shows produced by San Diego Repertory Theatre often tell epic stories in an intimate venue. Currently, at the Lyceum Space, is “House of Joy,” an action-adventure romance with a large scope.
Taking place in 1600s India, the protagonist is a bodyguard, Hamida (Devereau Chumrau), for the Emperor’s Imperial Harem. She goes on a quest to aid the mistreated Queen Mariyam (Tamara Rodriguez) by helping her leave the harem forever.
The production at Horton Plaza is directed by Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse and National Director’s Fellowship Director in Residence Arpita Mukherjee. “Woodhouse and I work pretty close together on all aspects of the show,” Mukherjee said.
Mukherjee previously worked with the playwright Madhuri Shekar in New York and even staged a reading of her show, “Queen,” before the 2017 world premiere at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago.
“House of Joy” is also a fairly new work and premiered in August 2019 at San Francisco’s California Shakespeare Theater (“Cal Shakes”).
Aspects of Shekar’s writing that connect with Mukherjee are her sense of wit, use of strong female characters and messages about friendship. “Shekar pulls you in with humor, and then offers a gut punch and an invitation to question,” she said.
In addition, Mukherjee is bringing “a dramaturgical perspective,” and is also bringing her extensive knowledge about Southeast Asia.
“I’m from that part of the world [Mukherjee was born and grew up in Dehli] and have extensively studied that part of Southeast Asia,” she said. Some of the research she focused on included information about the Mughal Period. She is fascinated with how the period continues to leave an impact on India, specifically with art, culture, and language.
The star of the story, Chumrau, learned a lot of interesting information about 17th-century India, after she was cast in the staging. She found parallels with 2020 during the process.
“India is depicted as a big capital that is thriving, and so much of it is built off of the backs of people that are not necessarily in charge,” she said.
Shekar worked on her script shortly after the 2016 presidential election. “I think it is about the fall of salability of great empires,” Mukherjee said. “It’s lovely to recognize that there were great empires in the world before they were colonized.”
In addition to the historical elements, action-heavy scenes are used throughout the theatrical event.
Fight sequences involving Chumrau add to the grandness of the narrative. Chumrau did research in the martial arts style Kalaripayattu, also known as Kalari.
Although Chumrau knows that theater is a different art form than film, she still says that the evening feels “cinematic and very Shakespearian.”
Mukherjee gives credit to the behind-the-scenes team for adding to the visual and audio elements of the night, particularly costume designer Jennifer Brawn Gittings, sound designer Kevin Anthenill, and fight director Edgar Landa.
Besides being a spectacle, the interpretation uses an ensemble entirely made up of artists of color.
“It’s so exciting seeing people, particularly women of color, be badasses, beautiful, flawed, and able to transform,” Mukherjee said. “That’s something I never saw growing up in theater, and it is such a powerful element of this plot.”
Chumrau is very happy that the San Diego Rep is presenting a fairly new show, that she views as gutsy.
“It’s a risky story to tell and we’re doing it in a risky way,” she said. “That is what is so wonderful about this experience.”
From the historical elements to the action, there are many reasons to be excited for the San Diego Rep’s latest, which is now in previews. Woodhouse and Mukherjee’s interpretation of Shekar’s script should appeal to San Diegans looking for a unique piece of theater.
— David Dixon has written reviews and features for various print and online publications. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.