It was like a holiday.
A friend and I drove out to Langley to see Dooja Ghar, Paneet Singh and Andy Kalirai’s modern retelling of a seventeenth-century Punjabi love story. Driving through the farmland in the early summer evening was such a gentle, expansive experience it was like floating. The show, which is part of this year’s Monsoon Festival, is being staged in the cathedral-like loft of a barn. And it’s very good.
Set in Surrey, BC in the 90s, the Singh/Kalirai telling is about a young guy named Mirza who comes from India when he’s eleven to live with the family of a girl named Sahiban, who’s the same age. (Sahiban’s family owes Mirza’s a favour.) When they’re fourteen, they start falling for one another big time. Sahiban’s family regards them as siblings, however, and Mirza, it seems, is lower caste, so things don’t go smoothly.
Although the narrative trajectory is predictable, Singh and Kalirai always keep it engaging. Partly, they do that by respecting Sahiban’s conflict: she loves Mirza, but she also loves and needs her family.
And the playwrights offer all sorts of humour and other stylistic surprises. When Sahiban’s parents insist that she interview other potential husbands, the narrator drags male audience members onstage to be (gently) grilled. The evening is enlivened by pure movement: Nasiv Sall’s dance choreography and Sam Jeffery and PIP’s intimacy direction add joy and eroticism; Arash Khakpour’s fight choreography brings excitement
There are glitches in the script: the childhood scenes between Mirza and Sahiban are generic, for instance — but, under Panthea Vatandoost’s direction, the acting is so good you barely notice the blips.
In this three-hander, Arkie Kandola is the narrator and, not to put too fine a point on it, he’s fantastic. Kandola does a lot of film and TV work, and he brings that level of subtlety to his performance, but he also does the wonderfully theatrical thing of flipping between characters as easily as breathing: the philosophical narrator, Sahiban’s jolly then raging father, her distraught mother, mean-spirited high-school kids.
And you couldn’t ask for better performances from Rami Kahlon as Sahiban and playwright Kalirai as Mirza. The script requires a huge emotional range from Sahiban and Kahlon fills that range fearlessly. Kalirai is also impressively, thoroughly present as Mirza.
There is something deeply messed up about narratives that frame tragedy as romantic, of course. And, unfortunately, like Romeo and Juliet, that’s what Dooja Ghar does. (I’m not giving anything away: off the top, we’re told we’re about to witness a tragedy.) I would have appreciated more reinvention on that front.
Still, I’m very grateful for this fresh, fresh evening.
DOOJA GHAR (THE OTHER HOUSE) – A MIRZA SAHIBAN STORY by Paneet Singh and Andy Kalirai. Directed by Panthea Vatandoost. Presented by South Asian Arts and the Monsoon Festival. On Saturday, August 6. Remaining performances at the Red Barn (1065 224 Street, Langley) on August 7 and 12 to 14. Tickets
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