Monday, February 2, 2015

Brahman/i - Brilliance with Burnout

David Bielewicz (L) and Sanjiv Jhaveri (R) in Brahman/I Photo Credit Heather Mull 

You know what happens when you watch an eclipse of the sun without proper eye protection? The same sort of thing happened to me on an emotional level Saturday evening when I sat through a nearly two hour long, non-stop viewing of Brahman/I - an experiential brownout after watching the shimmer of the writer's fecund mind and imagination light up the stage..
The brilliance in my review’s title came from Indian-American playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil, actor Sanjiv Jhaveri and director Shishir Kurup, the man responsible for fine tuning the standup comedy format of Kapil’s stream-of-consciousness, 60-plus page script.  The burnout came from me who listened raptly as though entranced by some bald-headed Scheherazade telling me her 1001 and One Nights stories in a single sitting, but with attention span deficit setting in about 90 minutes into the routine. Not that my interest wavered much even at this point; it’s just that my energy level plummeted because of the informational overload.
Jhaveri entered the theater, not from the stage, but from the back of the comedy club setting, convincingly created by set designer Britton Mauk. Roaming through the crowd, he warmed up by sensitively sniping ad lib quips at some in the audience to hilarious effect. Once on stage his :"comedy routine" kicked in and a minute later I rashly thought "This guy is no Cris Rock." Then the magic began.
Dressed in a black leather jacket, black pants, heavy black boots, he looked like some Folsom Street biker with a bit too much eye brow makeup. He then eased into his main character, one of a dozen or so, to tell the story of a young Indian-American living in Georgia growing into puberty after being born a hijra, Hindi for hermaphrodite or someone born with both male and female genitalia.
But the girl/boy’s adaptation to the rare and unique (I assume) form of physical  sexual ambiguity is just the start of the playwright’s kinetic imagination as she takes us into mythological, historical, ethnic territory that covers everything from Odysseus and Stonehenge to the time of Britain’s colonial rule in India.
During his eclectic narrative that assumes a swarm of characters in different places and time periods, Jhaveri manages a convincing array of accents that include Indian, Cockney and the proper English spoken by Queen Victoria, one of his smaller character guises.
Accompanying the actor on bass guitar and an apparatus that produces all sorts of sound effects and noises, David Bielewicz is more than an accompanist and cue marker. At first, I was puzzled by his rather detached attitude to the performance, then, as the evening progressed, I saw his role in a much fuller context that allows his earlier demeanor to make sense.
Somewhere around the midpoint of his performance, Jhaveri underwent a visual transition that started when he removed his leather jacket to expose a bright red shirt embellished with Hindu garnishes. He then walked over to a couch on the stage and pulled off a colorfully decorated cloth that he then sensually wrapped around his body to form a sari. With his back to the audience, he added a long wig, then turned around in the new persona of Brahmani, as his female counterpart is called.
 Quantum, known for its predilection for moving to different (and interesting) performance venues, chose the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation’s Community Center at 113 N. Pacific Avenue to stage "Brahman/i. Quantum’s set designers took the building that once served as a church and now gets second life as a community center and transformed it into a "Temple of Comedy, complete with cabaret-style tables and comfy chairs."
Sanjiv Jhaveri at the bar in back of the "Temple of Comedy" Photo Credit: Heather Mull
As an aid to evoking the Indian themed performance, Quantum Theatre is including snacks and a bottle of Kingfisher beer or chai, a spiced milk tea, with the price of admission. The nearby People’s Indian Restaurant provides the edibles and is also within convenient walking distance for those wanting to dine out rather inexpensively before the show.
While the laughs in Brahman/I are plentiful, the author also segues into darker territory taking on issues of sexual identity, ethnic prejudice and the troubles those with a unique identity have fitting into a world and culture at variance with themselves.
With all this going on, Jhaveri maintains a freshness throughout the entire show. His enthusiasm and energy never seem to wane, but it was a wee bit too much of a marathon for me. A few snips here and there would have made the experience a bit easier to digest.
"Braham/I," a production of the Quantum Theatre, runs through February 22. Phone 412-362-1713.

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