Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The House of Joy
Also see Richard's recent review of The African Company Presents Richard III
It's long on hushed, faux-Byzantine palace intrigue, in a Persian-ish setting. And long on an unconvincing sort of girl-power, with a timorous, nearly all-female cast, and one male actor playing a eunuch. The unintended lesson is that, when one is faced with corruption, one should not cower in fear, as these characters generally do. But they do, and maybe it's fun in that horrible, psychologically debilitating sort of way, because everyone is afraid, and nobody can come to grips with it. They do spend much of the final twenty minutes talking about the assassination of the old emperor, which has taken place off-stage. However, the precise circumstances of his death depend on who's telling the story. And any way you slice it, though, it's not much of a payoff.
It is inescapably fraught and posed, like David Lynch's movie Dune, except (extending this metaphor) with some rather anemic Powder Puff Girls fighting over the spice melange. The whole thing is made barely tolerable by the many colorful big screen projections designed by Stefania Bulbarella and Brian Pacelli, and Devin Kinch. Those great backdrops and floor spaces are lavishly animated or illustrated by Joaquin Dagnino.
Tina Muñoz Pandya portrays Roshni, the newest guard inside the palace of the royal ladies in an unnamed fairytale kingdom, with Sumi Yu, who's very fine as fellow guard Hamida. They're both pretty blank, like anime characters–but get some good (inexplicably modern and profane) scenes together. And whenever Roshni (Ms. Muñoz Pandya) comes together with the youngest new queen (Emily Marso), they are romantically transported to a mystical domain, and on one memorable occasion have polite sex in a boat.
In that five minute stretch, the older gentleman next to me muttered "disgusting," and did not raise his eyes to acknowledge the stage for several minutes afterward, at a recent matinee. His viewpoint is debatable, as a critical sentiment. But it's also a common mindset in this part of town, where I grew up a few miles north. After all, this is Webster Groves, Missouri, and not SoHo or Greenwich Village. And you can't tell your audience what to want, any more than you can push a string.
And yet, there is an awful lot of string-pushing going on, under the over-confident direction of Lavina Jadhwani. Over and over, tiny young women brandish wooden dowel rods as weapons in a vain show as fearsome warriors. If they have matinees for enough all-girl schools, maybe they can make back most of their investment. Except for all the script's au courant cursing and sexiness (which have always been my go-to's as well).
As the eunuch, Omar Abbas Salem is subtly lascivious, adding a steady dash of much-needed humor. And Aila Ayilam Peck salvages some weird sense of honor I can't explain, in the role of an ambitious princess, despite an on-again/off-again lust for both matricide and patricide. She too is a little blank, though. So I will call her talent a form of brilliance, elusive in emerging, even though I hate this show so very much overall. And there's so little attention paid to her gradual transformation. This is why villains on stage usually have quirks or stage business to reflect on where they're going as characters in the story. She neither offers nor is given any of that here.
But I really like Miriam A. Laube as the chief of the guard, full of a Dame Judith Evans (or Linda Hunt, from Dune) style sense of doom. In spite of all that (occasionally) satirical ceremonial gravitas, she's the most fun to watch, for a sense of tremulous, almost comical naturalism. She pulls it all off for her director, even when the director has so incorrectly advised every other one of her other actors as to their tone and bearing. There's a horrific theatrical lineage here, in which The House of Joy now resides: once again, as happens every five or ten years, when the Rep fucks up, they fuck up mightily.
And yet, and yet. Ms. Laube finds a fundamental spark of success that might still spread to choreographer Aparna Kalyanaraman and to them all. Somehow, fight director Gaby Labotka cannot impart any threat of physical violence (or the appearance of it). And, in the interest of full disclosure, it is deeply offensive to me, as the son of a drill sergeant, to think of any of this as being reflective of any plausible empire, in any human setting, on this godforsaken planet.
On top of all of that, the second-hand stories of Princess Noorah's dispatching of her parents–or not–make as little sense as her gradual shift from good to evil in a mind-boggling dull script by Madhuri Shekar.
The House of Joy runs through September 18, 2022, on the Browning Mainstage at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 N. Edgar Rd., St. Louis MO. For more information please visit www.repstl.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association