A Brimful of Asha
Engineered Air Theatre
Jan 9 – 11, 2014
As the saying goes, if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother. For Indo-Canadian director/writer/actor Ravi Jain, the one thing is his mother Asha, or more specifically her unyielding insistence that he settle down and get married already. When Asha’s nagging turned to meddling in the form of trying to arrange marriages for him, Jain took his personal drama and channeled it for the stage. A Brimful of Asha is the true account of Jain and his mother at loggerheads over the question of when, to whom and by what means he should marry. If Jain had left the idea at that, the result might have been a quaint run of the mill culture clash story suitable for sitcom timing and stock characters. Instead Jain made the brave and very headline-grabby move of casting himself and his non-actor mother as themselves in the show. The result is a charming, if not altogether successful production that relies too heavily on casting and a one note narrative.
On a simple table and chair set we are told to imagine is the Jain’s family kitchen, the moon-faced Asha clad in a beautiful hot pink sari, tells us we are not here to see a play. Instead she gracefully informs us, we’re here to help her sort out a dispute with Ravi. A dispute, according to her, where he is wrong. Thus begins a comical, fourth wall-breaking he said, she said recounting about the “absolute true” events that led Ravi’s parents attempts at arranged marriage during a trip he made to India in 2007. We listen as Asha explains that her duty in life is to see her children happily married and the pressure she feels from her community in Indian and Canada to make this happen. We see Canadian-born Ravi rail against the guilt put upon him by his parents traditional marital views and his need to come to marriage in his own way. Mostly we just enjoy the bond we see between mother and son as they argue, make fun of each other and revel in the laughs their version of the story gets from the audience.
But somewhere just over halfway into this ninety minute production, the novelty wears off and the story stagnates. We get not one but two lengthy scenarios involving Ravi and a “marriageable” girl , Asha’s retorts of ‘because I’m your mother and I’m right’ become repetitive and large block of the tale takes place without Asha, leaving her sitting mute on the stage and leaving us wondering if and when she will fold back into the production.
That’s the problem with “absolute true” stories. Just because it happened that way doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. Where A Brimful of Asha does shine is not so much in the repeated arguments/scenarios between mother and son, but rather the asides taken to give context. Asha’s description of her own marriage and move to Toronto from India shows the non-actress at her most natural story-telling and is a wonderful window into the immigrant experience. Ravi’s story about a Bollywood star who inspired him to become an actor is similarly unforced and delightful. But it was the smallest moment in the show that packed the most punch. While delivering yet another set of complaints against his mother’s traditional ways, Ravi takes a seat on the edge of the kitchen table. Asha taps to get his attention, then gently calls his name, getting louder to make herself heard. Whispering as though trying not to be heard, she shakes her head and tells him gently but forcefully not to sit on the table. Ravi looks stunned but slowly obeys and takes a chair. Whether this moment was planned or not (and I assume it was) it told us everything we needed to know about the dynamic between these two and it sealed our affection and laughter for both characters. Sometimes in comedy and drama the biggest bang comes with the smallest tap.
For Indo-Canadians – I heard many comments from Indo-Canadian audience members that amounted to – “We have these exact arguments in our home” and “This play is SO true” – so obviously the show resonates on a personal level with many in this cultural group. Always good to see your issues addressed and laughed at respectfully on stage. SEE IT
For everyone else – The desire of a parent to exert influence over (control?) their child’s life is by no means exclusive to the Indian culture. This is both an educational and relatable story with some lovely giggles along the way in spite of the show’s shortcomings. SEE IT
For the occasional theater goer – The show is more of a recounting and conversation rather than a traditional play. But Ravi and Asha are charming and while their conflicts are real, they are presented as light comedy that can be easily digested and enjoyed. MAYBE SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – At ninety minutes this show felt very much like a great Fringe show that overstayed its welcome. While there is no doubt that the play’s idea is terrific and Ravi and his mom are charming on stage, the repetitive story arc and the “rehearsed” feel of the argument stops this show from being a must-see. MAYBE SEE IT