Brothel #9: exquisite physical production, stellar performances

Touchstone Theatre is presenting Anusree Roy's Brothel #9.

Adele Noronha and Laara Sadiq are extraordinary in Brothel #9.

It’s immersive. There are so many compelling textures in Touchstone Theatre’s production of Brothel #9 that, watching it, you feel like you’re somewhere else.

In Toronto playwright Anusree Roy’s script, a young woman named Rekha arrives in a rundown building in Kolkata, thinking that she is about to start work in a light bulb factory. But she soon finds out that her brother-in-law has sold her into prostitution. Jamuna, an older sex worker, informs Rekha that escape is impossible: Birbal, their pimp, has excellent contacts; he will track her down wherever she goes and his revenge will be violent. When a policeman named Salaudin arrives, Rekha thinks that he might help her, but Salaudin takes Rekha into a back room and rapes her. Apparently unmoved by Rekha’s cries, Jamuna makes fish curry in the main room and sings to herself.

Before this story begins, the first thing you notice when you come into the Vancity Culture Lab is Drew Facey’s enveloping, minutely detailed set. I attended Brothel #9 with a pal who’s from Kolkata and he marveled at the authenticity: the hanging wires, the numbered doors, the cooking implements, the disrepair.

I don’t know how deeply that authenticity extends into the script. I haven’t been to Kolkata, nor have I worked in the sex trade, but I have a strong hunch that playwright Roy is underplaying the violence and degradation of slum-level prostitution. Although Nirbhaya, which The Cultch presented with Diwali Fest last year, didn’t deal with prostitution, it did deal with gender-based violence in both India and Canada: drawn directly from real-life events, Nirbhaya’s exploration of power and gender was much harsher than Brothel #9’s is.

Still, within the world that Roy has created, the complexity of the characters is fascinating: Jamuna buys Rekha trinkets; she also threatens to cut off Rekha’s hands if she tries to lay claim to Salaudin, who is one of Jamuna’s regulars and her pseudo husband. Salaudin, the rapist, recasts himself as Rekha’s lover. The interactions between the characters also intrigue: Rekha is not above flaunting the status that her youth and beauty give her over Jamuna, but Jamuna is still more than capable of terrorizing her.

Playing Jamuna, Laara Sadiq, who was once based in Vancouver but now lives in Toronto, is superb. There are so many colours to her Jamuna—the brassy come-on, the sloppy drunkenness—but two moments stand out for me: the devastating simplicity with which Sadiq’s Jamuna describes the death of a child, and the small grunt of despair that she utters late in the play when she realizes her fate.

Adele Noronha is also excellent as Rekha. An emerging artist, Noronha has come into her own this season, starting with her work in Walt Whitman’s Secrets. She covers the treacherous emotional terrain of Brothel #9 with fearless honesty. Her traumatized response to being raped lingers with me.

David Adams finds the jolly charm, the desperation, and some of the threat in Birbal, but I would have appreciated more callousness both from his Birbal and from Shekhar Paleja’s Salaudin. The script wouldn’t fully support this added complexity, but Birbal and Salaudin both wield power in a brutal system and they abuse it.

Quibbles aside, director Katrina Dunn’s production of Brothel #9 provides a remarkably rich experience.

BROTHEL #9 By Anusree Roy. Directed by Katrina Dunn. A Touchstone Theatre production as part of Diwali Fest, at The Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab.

Recommended. Get tickets at 604-251-1363 or http://thecultch.com/tickets/

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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