Shakti Bhakti @ Diwali in BC

"Festival of Light" theatre series celebrates Eternal Feminine

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A lulled and sedated Shakti would be more to the liking of the bland whitecoats who oversee the $1,000-a-day sanatorium depicted in Pamala Mala Sinha’s Happy Place. The place is basically a storage bin for women who’ve survived suicide attempts, to shield them from life-threatening retries.

How am I supposed to eat this rubber chicken with a plastic spoon? Photo: Nicola Cavendish

In the well-worn tradition of theatrical therapeutics, the inmates wind up running the asylum. Their doctor (Donna Yamamoto) tries to corral them into anodyne, if somewhat infantilizing, group activities – First Nation-style “talking stick” round-robins, collaging soothing visions of one’s “happy place,” transferring traumas to a personalized “memory stone.”

But the ladies will have none of it. “I know a pet rock when I see one,” scoffs raunchy sexagenarian Mildred (Nicola Cavendish). Urged to resume her meds and relinquish her illusory pregnancy, perimenopausal Nina (Laara Sadiq) cuts through all the medical jargon and straight to the teleological chase: “I’m depressed because my serotonin is low, or my serotonin is low because I’m depressed?”

Gangly Joyce (Diane Brown), who in two full acts never manages to get out of her sleepwear,flouts all the clinic’s privacy norms to winkle out everyone’s darkest back stories. Patrician Rosemary (Colleen Wheeler) breaks her customary reserve to archly thank everyone for “the privilege of being judged by you at all.”

But the two most encysted members of the Group Therapy sextet are its youngest members, the Gen X/Gen Y duo of Celine (Sereana Malani) and Samira (Adele Noronha). Rape victims, both, their post-traumatic stress opens up a special bond between them.

With mutual support, they find the courage to each sign themselves out of their therapeutized haven and the illusory “happy place” of denial. Still, the clinic routine rolls on; there’s always a “new girl” on the waiting list.

A show like this faces several challenges, all of which the Vancouver production met with considerable flair.

First off, there’s a pile-up of characters, each with her own more or less lurid and convoluted background – a lot of emotionally freighted factoids to convey in the form of dialogue. Playwright Sinha delivers these plot points in short, pithy scenes – 13 of them – each culminating in a narrative “reveal.”

Pacing is key, and director Roy Surette (artistic helmsman of Touchstone Theatre, which co-produced Vancouver’s Happy Place) brings it off with a deft touch. To deliver all these zingers also takes a high-powered cast. All seven of the locally recruited players rise to the occasion. Special kudos to Noronha, who stars as the author’s own alter-ego in this quasi-autobiographical script.

Set designer Pam Johnson manages to stuff the whole complex clinic layout – dorms, common room, mess hall, kitchen, courtyard and all – into the tight confines of the Firehall Theatre stage. Mood and scene changes are unobtrusively cued by composer Dorothy Dittrich’s original score and Adrian Muir’s subtle lighting.

Oddly, the whole cramming exercise somehow enhances the claustrophobic feel of the sanatorium. But one senses that this script really wants to be a movie – a project which is apparently on the boards for 2018.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the “who cares” factor. Compared with trauma victims worldwide, including those in Encounter and Honour, these $1,000-a-day inmates might be seen to have it rather soft.

But their pain is very real, as Sinha captures – and the Vancouver cast delivers – in a series of searing monologues. None of which is to be discounted in this post-Weinstein season.

Quite what any of this has to do with Diwali is another question, apart from the South Asian extraction of the author and three of the actors (Noronha, Malani and Sadiq).

But the answer might lie in the transcendent power of Shakti, the Eternal Feminine, to validate and liberate sisterly solidarity, even in the privileged precincts of darkest Canada.

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