The largely-revised Rice Boy (begun in 1996, now reborn in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s intimate Studio Theatre) is a slow-motion metaphor of one of the play’s most significant images: the kolam.
Like the ground-up rice powder which South Indian women painstakingly shape into patterns on their floors daily (the fruits of those labours vanish with the inevitable and expected human traffic that soon obliterates their beauty and meaning), playwright Sunil Kuruvilla’s “traffic” (a.k.a audiences of 2000-2003) would find a significantly altered “kolam” in the current version which, following a stage reading in 2008, informed the writer that his own view of the earlier visions had changed.
And that tradition lives on both in the revisions (notably re-working character “grandma” to “grandpa” to more clearly link the three generations of “boys looking for girls”) and with the happy, present-day reality that every performance—at one with the fleeting white-powder creations—ensures that no two will ever look the same.
Intriguingly, much more is crushed in this production than the world’s most abundant food staple.
Father’s (Raoul Bhaneja in a delightfully lilting depiction of an accent-as-obstacle mathematics professor now fast-food grunt in Waterloo, Ontario) love was devastatingly trampled with the presumed drowning (no body was ever recovered of his wife after she swam out too far in the family’s neighbourhood river years ago during a visit home). The despondent dad is left alone to raise their only child but can’t push back his heavy grief, more and more relying on the 12-year-old son to “take care of me.”
That daunting task falls onto the slight shoulders of Tommy (Araya Mengesha, showing much promise in the emotionally-demanding role). He’s a Canadian kid in Indian skin who endures all manner of racist taunts only to find comfort in the silent security of the upper limbs of proverbial/literal trees of life (designer Jessica Poirier-Chang rendered these as cost-effective, efficient ladders, yet lost the visual link to nature with the absence of any attempt at life-affirming foliage—even the slaughtered chickens fared better).
When Father and Tommy once again return to their cultural roots they soon discover that Grandfather (Sam Moses) still searches in vain for his long-dead bride and Auntie (Deena Aziz is appropriately caustic and conniving) is soon to leave Uncle (Sanjay Talwar) for the town’s best doctor, fully aware that she is not the only adulterer in their becalmed marriage.
The sole child of their union, 17-year-old Tina (a heroic, well-balanced portrayal by Anita Majumdar), has had her dreams smashed from birth: a pair of deformed unmoving legs leaves her trapped in a pushcart—prospects for a “normal” life are bleak.
Rounding out the India household are Servant Girl (Asha Vijayasingham ideally captures the mocking-insecure tone) and Fish Seller (Anand Rajaram who also adds hawking hilarity as Nut Seller and eerie grossness playing Umbrella Man: admiring then touching Tommy’s “beautiful legs” adds another layer of sexual tension and literal contrast to Tina’s misshapen limbs). The once happy couple have drifted past the point of relationship salvation, yet, with their frequent spats laced with the subtext of quarrelling-lovers who yearn for make-up sex, perhaps there’s still a chance for reconciliation.
The other physical crushing is stone. At his workplace, Uncle and his co-workers are covered with so much soot that Auntie has to rely on her sense of smell to deliver her beloved’s daily lunch.
With so much rancour spilling off the stage, the play would soon collapse under its own weight were it not for the magical commodity of love.
From their first rude (“Your legs are weird.”) encounter, Tommy is immediately smitten with Tina. Despite the age difference (12 to 17 in those formative years belies the actual number), he soon moves from overt sarcasm (a typical reaction from those confronted with the reality of physical disabilities) to become a boner-sporting “husband” who delights in surreptiously wheeling “wife” downtown after prayers—finally she sees life beyond the confines of home, no longer forced to rely on others “to be my eyes.”
To keep at least a modicum of sanity and self-respect, everybody lies. From whether a long overdue bowel movement has occurred (“show me your underwear”) to selective recollection of favourite moments in the “good times” (“I loved how you used to comb my hair), the bald reality of miserable circumstance is swept under the rug as surely as the kolam disappears—only to be reshaped from the same elements as a new day dawns.
Finally, purposely, and knowingly, lying away the dead or disdained from the past in the present seems far too “Canadianly” convenient, yet convincingly demonstrates the inner trials and “turbulations” of cultural transplantation. JWR