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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Hijra has United States Premiere at NCTC

Also see Richard's reviews of Slava's Snowshow and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

Hijra
Michael Mohammed and
Wesley Cayabyab

As part of its Pride Season Eleven, The New Conservatory Theatre Center is presenting the United States premiere of Hijra by British-Asian playwright Ash Kotak. This Bollywood-meets-Brokeback comedy premiered at the Theatre Royal Plymouth on October 19th, 2000, and later moved to the Bush Theatre in London to good reviews in the gay British newspapers.

Hijras are the mystical "third generation" of South Asia and, according to tradition, have the ability to cast spells and grant wishes. They are often eunuchs and are part of Indian tradition through Hindu lore and Muslim courts. Even though homosexuality is illegal in India you see these "third gender" performing artists dancing at weddings. A hijra was a main character in the recent Broadway and London musical Bombay Dreams.

Andrew Nance has directed a feel good, all's-well-that-ends well type of play that explores community, sexuality and identity in a comic manner. The story is strictly like that of a Bollywood movie, but with no big musical sequences. It incorporates a hilarious group of Indian mothers and aunts who are straight out of those quirky movies that India produces. This group of ladies could be Italian, Irish or Jewish mothers wanting their sons to marry the opposite sex of their race. Since the Indian community in England is strictly straight laced, the playwright wanted to make this frothy and light comedy to get his message of homosexual love across.

Hijra opens in Bombay during the wedding season, when ambitious mothers hunt for future brides and grooms for their children, with the music and dancing of the Hijras, those spiritual cross dressing men who will cast spells over the couples and grant the wishes of the mothers. Madhu (Sareeka Malhotra) is anxious to see her son Nils (Mukund Venkatesh), a good looking eligible bachelor who lives in New York, get married at last. Likewise, Indira (Sukanya Sarkar) is determined to get her daughter Sheila (Rachel Rajput) married to a rich husband. Sheila is the perfect match since she also lives in New York and this young Americanized girl is hot to trot just to get her mother off her back.

However, no one knows that Nils is gay and he has met Raj (Wesley Cayabyab) on the beach; it was love at first sight. Raj, who is not a eunuch, lives in the house of Hijras as an adopted son of old school matriarch Guru Hijara (Ashish Joshi). Nils and Raj want to live together as lifetime companions and a plan by Guru is hatched to smuggle Raj back to New York as Nils' wife.

Raj gets into the States by posting as a woman, but Nils is skittish about letting the boy get out of drag, afraid that his mother, his little India neighborhood and the immigration department will find out the real story. He even lets his relatives think he is practically engaged to the luckless Sheila.

Hijra goes over the top in the second act when Nils's mother and aunty (Maya Capur) along with Sheila's mother show up to make this a downright silly sitcom with the shenanigans going on between the characters. It strains the credibility of all of the characters. All's well that ends well in a somewhat clumsy manner.

Maya Capur as Aunty, Sukanya Sarkar as Indira and Sareeka Malhotra as Madhu have the cleverest lines in this production. They give razor-sharp performances playing the overly emotional typical Indian ladies in some hilarious scenes. Rachel Rajput gives a good performance as Sheila although her attempted seduction of Nils in the second act does not ring true. It is more of a comedy sequence you would see on "Saturday Night Live." Michael Mohammed does what he can with Bobby, a "swinging" young Indian man who has difficulty picking up girls. He is a very seductive hijra in the first act moving his hips in a suggestive manner. Ashish Joshi plays the Guru in an ethereal manner.

Director Nance does what he can with some of soap opera conversations between Nils and Raj and many of the scenes are straight out of a sitcom that would go well on the LOGO network. The characters of Nils and Raj are not fleshed out and you wonder why Nils, played by Mukund Venkatesh who is a natural actor with a good speaking voice, is all that interested in Raj. Venkatesh plays the role very distant in Nils's relationships with both Sheila and Raj. As Raj, Wesley Cayabyab tends to rush his lines in the first act but manages to effectively play the hidden "wife" in the second act. However, his woman's wig and costume look almost ludicrous, like something out of an early 1930s comedy.

Nance keeps the action fluid on the small stage that is filled with colorful tiles and drapery decked walls done by Bruce Walters. Prem Lathi's costumes consist of authentic bright saris and good Western apparel. Sukanya Sarkar and Vicki Virk's choreography of Indian dance is excellent on this small stage.

Hijra plays at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco through May 21st. For tickets call 415-861-8972 or on line at www.nctcsf.org.

The New Conservatory Theatre Center's next Pride season production will be Paul Rudnick's Valhalla opening on May 12th.


Photo: Lois Tema


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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