Cal Shakes’ world premiere of “House of Joy” by emerging playwright Madhuri Shekar is a dramatically staged and spectacularly costumed action-adventure romance set in a harem during the impending collapse of the storied 17th century Mughal Indian Empire. For over two hundred years, this empire reigned over virtually the entire Indian subcontinent as far west as Afghanistan.
The creative concept of “House of Joy” explores the lives of the women of the empire, from those subjugated in the harem, to the brave female warrior/slaves who guard the harem, and, the autocratic members of the imperial family whose internecine rivalries hasten their own downfall.
Yet, with agile direction by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, a first-rate cast, and all the staging, lighting, costumes, fight scenes, and other details perfectly wrought, the “House of Joy” would benefit from more significant character development and suspense to help the audience care more about the protagonists and worry about their choices and futures.
The plot of the striking two-act, two-hour production centers around two outsiders to the Mughal Empire who were taken from their home country as children and forced to serve the unseen Emperor. Hamida (excellent Emma Van Lare) is the most skilled bodyguard of the harem. Hamida’s extravagantly dressed, golden finger-nailed and eye-lashed eunuch brother Salima (outstanding Rotimi Agbabiaka), is now a favored advisor to Noorah (first-rate Lipica Shah), the ambitious, cunning daughter of the Emperor. Although the males in the imperial family are battling for power off-stage, we bet that it is Noorah who will win the day.
Hamida’s friend and co-warrior is Roshni (effervescent Sango Tajima). Their highly-skilled fights with swords and bamboo sticks (Fight Choreographer Dave Maier) are based on traditional Indian styles of martial arts. And there are many, many fight scenes.
Despite Hamida’s strength and martial skills, she is sympathetic to the young chief queen, Maryam (Rinabeth Apostol), who is often beaten by the Emperor and wants to escape from his clutches. Hamida’s love interest, Doctor Thermometer (very nicely played by Raji Ahsan), is a gentle soul, but with a resolute sense of self.
It is only through Thermometer that the audience learns that the empire is suffering from famine and other ills while the imperial family enjoys an extravagant lifestyle. Their lavishness is exemplified by their gorgeous, over-the-top glimmering costumes and luxurious headdresses by Costume Designer Oana Botez.
“House of Joy” is part of Cal Shakes’ New Classics Initiative, which “develops new works by playwrights who, while diverse in perspective and experience, share Shakespeare’s vision of the power of story.” And “House of Joy” fits this definition well. It centers on diverse women’s struggles in South Asia, yet, has familiar elements of Shakespearean tragedies — ambitious royal power struggles in faraway lands with swashbuckling bravery and heroics. However, the power of story could use a boost by heightening the dramatic tension. That said, “House of Joy” is an elaborate enjoyable evening under the stars.
This article originally appeared on Berkeleyside.
By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2019 All Rights Reserved