Anusree Roy’s play takes on the taboo of mental illness in Toronto’s South Asian community
Currently playing at the Factory Mainspace, Little Pretty and The Exceptional is the latest installment of Factory Theatre’s generally brilliant Beyond the Great White North season. While the production has some seriously good moments, it is still one of the weaker shows I’ve seen this season.
First of all, I just wanted to acknowledge that this play is not made for me. This is not to say that it doesn’t contain universal themes or is not a play that everyone can enjoy, but I may have a different experience watching this play as someone who is not a part of the South Asian community and may not have gotten all of the jokes. On that note, I want to recognize that the audience on my night laughed throughout and seemed to really enjoy the show.
Little Pretty and The Exceptional is a play about two sisters, Jasmeet and Simran, who are helping their father Dilpreet open a new sari shop in Little India. However their preparations are soon interrupted by Simran’s increasingly mysterious behaviour that call up past traumas that refuse to remain buried.
I really enjoyed how playwright Anusree Roy uses humour in the show to explore deeper themes like internalized racism and the importance of giving and receiving money and gifts in immigrant families. Director Brendan Healey also does a great job creating believable family dynamics between the sisters and their father with affectionate body language.
Unfortunately I found it difficult to completely engage with the play because I felt like the pacing veered off. The actors seemed to be hitting all of their marks but there was a lack of plot-propelling tension and at a little over two hours, the energy often dropped in the longer scenes and the entire play felt way too long.
This lack of energy was also not helped by the static blocking. There were a few moments where the actors just stood slack-jawed while another performer spoke even though the writing practically calls for a larger reaction or more interactions.
I wonder if the blocking was impeded by the set – a large opaque counter that came up too high. When the actors sat behind it, I couldn’t see a large part of their bodies from my seat in the third row and half of the movement on stage seemed to be the actors just trying to move around it. It also circumvented Healey’s attempts at using the deeper areas of the stage.
The performances were a bit of a mixed bag. I very much enjoyed Shruti Kothari’s performance as Jasmeet and I thought she delivered a wonderfully realistic performance. While Sugith Varughese (Dilpreet) and Farah Merani (Simran) both have various moments of emotional resonance, I could not get over how much Varughese’s mannerisms and tone of voice reminded me of Mr. Kim from Kim’s Convenience, and I was torn on the portrayal of Simran’s mental health issues.
On the one hand, I recognize that mental illness presents differently in each person and every family is affected differently. On the other hand, as someone who has a lot of personal experience with mental illness, I was really uncomfortable to see this production portray mental illness as a horror show. Did there really need to be increasingly ominous music and unsettling lighting effects between scenes? Why was Simran’s breakdown depicted as a spirit possession?
I know very well the toll that mental illness can take on families but I’ve had enough of the sensationalization of these very real and increasingly common issues. Having a mental illness does not make you a monster. Mental illness should not portrayed as some unearthly affliction when there is already so much stigma surrounding our daily struggles and, more than ever, we need to let our friends and family know that there are real resources and support out there that can actually help.
Looking back at my experience, I think there is a good play inside Little Pretty and The Exceptional. It just needs a bit more work.
- Little Pretty and The Exceptional is playing until April 30th, 2016 at Factory Mainspace Theatre (125 Bathurst St.).
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8 pm with Sunday matinees at 2 pm. This show is approximately two hours long with one intermission.
- Ticket are $25-$55 and can be purchased online, by phone at 416.504.9971, or in-person at Factory’s Box Office (125 Bathurst St.).
Photo of Shruti Kothari and Sugith Varughese by Joseph Michael Photography.