Hit the "on" button and delight in Mixed Blood's Queen of the Remote Control
The opening moments of Mixed Blood Theatre's fast-paced, funny and dark social comedy Queen of the Remote Control, by Sujata Bhatt, are a little hard to grasp until you understand that Shilpa, a typical American teenager, tunes in her successful immigrant parents with the flick of a metaphorical remote control, as though they were a sitcom or a game show on TV. She passes cutting judgment on them, snaps them off when she's had enough and goes to her room to complete her application for Columbia.
Shilpa, played with shining panache by Taj Jansz Ruler, is an awkward 17-year-old whose physician parents came from the poverty of India to Silicon Valley, where they have achieved the American Dream, Indian-style. It's the NASDAQ boom of 1999. Materialism rules, and Kate Sutton-Johnson's slick set of an up-market California home - complete with hardwood floors, modern art and granite counter tops - reflects generous incomes. But things in the Shah household are not as glossy as they appear.
Spunky Shilpa is self-absorbed, petulant, TV-addled, engaging and angry. She's angry at her parents' Indianness, their insistence that she apply to close-by Stanford, when New York and Columbia beckon, the weight they place on appearances, and their expectations for her to marry. She dislikes her mother's subservience to her irascible father. With no support from her distracted parents and against a deadline, she struggles to come up with a subject for her application essay for Columbia in which she must assume the persona of a famous person, living or dead. This girl doesn't know who she is, let alone who else she could be. To add to the pressure she feels, her medical student brother brings home his fiancée for the first time.
It's a situation ripe for comedy and, in her witty, character-driven script, Bhatt delivers plenty of laughter. When a deeply buried family secret sidles into the view, she also delivers plenty to think about.
Queen looks at the culture gap between American children and their immigrant parents, class, color and identity, the impact of living a lie and frank greed.
Aditi Kapil directs an accomplished cast at a steady clip. As Shilpa, 18-year-old high-schooler Ruler is commanding as she integrates stereotypical TV roles into her mockery of her family's life: "This is Broadway Live from the Shah family household," she announces, holding a pencil as a microphone. "Here's your host, the fine, the fabulous, Shilpa Shah!" Young Ruler masters a range of emotions, from rage to earnest sweetness.
Gitta Reddy is strong as Divya, Shilpa's attractive mother. She might be a physician, but Divya appears ditzy, fussing about her son's impending wedding, struggling to manage Shilpa, scurrying to please her husband and to pick up his discarded socks. When she divulges the pain of what it means to live in the shadow of her true self, no remote control can switch her off, and in Reddy's expressive hands, Divya transforms.
In a convincing fat suit and hair piece, Zarawar Mistry as Ashok palpably enjoys his role as Shilpa's cranky father, delivering zingers like, "You don't get an education in America - you get a degree," with deadpan flair. In his book, education is mere "fou-fou-fa." What matters to Ashok are tangible things, particularly money and any opportunity to make more of it.
Aamera Siddiqui plays Padma, the daughter-in-law-to-be. Padma is too dark-skinned to be truly acceptable to the Shah parents, and Siddiqui manages the tricky role of being the plot's good-sense catalyst with quiet strength, as she introduces candor into the Shah household. As Nitin Shah, her fiancé, boyish Sebastian Kunnappily reveals unbounded ambition as he plots to use Padma's family money to make billions, conducting dubious clinical trials in India.
The use of a remote control in Queen has roots in Peter Sellers' unworldly Chauncey Gardner, trying to turn off threatening street thugs with his remote control. It's a great dramatic device that's apt for Bhatt's play and, as soon as you catch on that Shilpa isn't watching TV but tuning her family in and out, you'll want to hit the remote at evening's end just to keep this irresistible play going.
Queen of the Remote Control February 9 - 27, 2005. Thursdays and Fridays 8:00 p.m. Saturdays 7:00 p.m. Sundays 3:00 p.m. and and 7:00 p.m. Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501, South Fourth Street, Minneapolis. Call 612-338-6131. www.mixedblood.com.