Ambitious Displaced Hindu Gods fulfills mission

Rich Ryan

Displaced Hindu Gods — three new, interconnected works by a single playwright presented in repertory — is an incredibly ambitious undertaking for a theater. It also poses quite a challenge for the audience, who, on weekends, can take in all three works in a single marathon evening.

Playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil bites off a hefty chunk with these works, exploring everything from her Indian heritage to gender fluidity to the cultural impact of imperialism, while also working to craft three independent, fully realized stories.

The three distinct works each take on one of the three key deities of Hinduism. The characters are earthly incarnations of the Brahman, Kalki, and Shiva, and though they exist in a modern world reshaped by centuries of change, they retain their primal powers. The actors and directors craft complete and engaging worlds in each piece, and the different storytelling methods set the plays apart from one another: Brahman/I is primarily a one-person show presented as a standup routine, The Chronicles of Kalki uses flashbacks to tell its tale, and Shiv merges the "real" and imagined into a complex web.

Brahman/I: A one-hijra stand-up comedy show, directed by Jeremy Cohen, centers on the story of one hijra — which, in India, refers to a gender-fluid individual, and in Brahman's case, manifests as a hermaphrodite. An extended standup routine about a character's uneasy journey between being a boy and being a girl could be a tough sell, but Kapil's script is as fluid as the main character. Playwright Kapil also steps up for Brahman/I in a more visible way, as she shares the run with actor Debargo Sanyal, who fell ill late in the rehearsal process.

A lot of Brahman/I takes place in high school, as does The Chronicles of Kalki, directed by Bruce A. Young. The two works fit together like pieces of a puzzle, focusing heavily on identity, sexuality, and the assigned roles we often find ourselves trapped in.

The Chronicles of Kalki recounts a tumultuous week in the life of two teenage girls, one of whom summons the avatar of Kalki during a religious studies course. The girls are unprepared for the world the wild spirit unleashes and the demons that lie just under the surface. The play turns on a terrific performance from Lipica Shah as Kalki. Showing up in school in a spangled skirt, calf-high Doc Martens, and a torn jean jacket adorned with patches and badges, Shah embodies the character's wild fury.

Shah finds a different kind of fury as the title character in Shiv. While themes of colonialism and conquest are touched on in the first two plays, they become the focus here. The title character is the daughter of an Indian poet who struggles to find a home for his voice in the West. Appropriately enough, Shiv, directed by Risa Brainin, is the most poetic of the three plays.

Andrew Guilarte also does double duty, playing Shiv's father in one play and a policeman trying to untangle the strange series of events in The Chronicles of Kalki. Peter Christian Hansen holds up in an intriguing bit of double casting, portraying the bass-playing companion to Brahman, and then Gerard, a lonely young man caught in the web of revenge in Shiv.

Each of the three directors builds a full and compelling world with a minimum of fuss. The plays move along quickly, and each has a distinct voice that transcends the stage. The three can be seen individually or in a single-evening extravaganza, though the latter option made for too much at once, and gave the final play, Shiv, short shrift. Like the work itself, sitting for nearly four and a half hours of theater is an ambitious undertaking.

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