Review by Kate Gaul
The Marriage Agency is a new play by Saman Shad. It is a romantic comedy with its lens focussed firmly on second and third generation immigrant Australians. It explores belonging, family, heritage, and love. House husband Nasir opens a Marriage Agency to match and make the marriage for lovelorn Australians. His high-flying wife Tasnim works hard and is often absent. Is this cause for alarm? Daughter Salima is wise beyond her years and attempts to have her parents “see” each other. Told against a backdrop of stories of the Taj Mahal we are transported into the myths and reality of South Asian Australians as they straddle dual cultures.
The premise does require a leap from the audience. Where would such an agency like this even work in an Australian suburb? How would a man – so lacking in any practical skills – make this operational? This points to the tension inside this new play. The marriage agency is the manifestation of Nasir’s notion of love and belief in his own arranged marriage. It barely escapes cliché. Yet at the end of this 90 minutes+ we are enmeshed in a different kind of drama as the troubled couple speak openly and honestly for the first time. It’s an uneven journey.
Atharv Kolhatkar plays Nasir. Onstage for most of the play, Atharv is at his best when the play and the production allow him to indulge his solid comedy chops. There’s no doubting his charm and truth as he speaks about love. Sometimes the production shows us version of the husband and wife at the centre of this play as they would have been when they married in India. The layering of time is well handled by director Kenneth Moraleda and opens a door to a more fantastical interpretation. Both the character of Nasir and the actor who plays him, Atharv, are stuck somewhere between two styles. The production needs to stake a claim for both.
Newcomer Ashi Singh excels at playing Salima the 16-year-old daughter and, in the fantasy scenes, the young bride. Ashi has great stage presence and intelligence. A talent to watch!
Kevin Batliwala plays multiple roles – the guy in the running gag about butter chicken, a hapless bachelor, a young husband from the past, and Richard – therapist and the mistaken love interest of Tasnim. It’s solid detailed work and provides more comic relief. Caroline L George plays wife Tasnim. We’re never too sure what she does for a living. The character is given some insight towards the end of the play but for most if it she is a mystery. A woman who supports her husband’s schemes but may or may not have ever experienced “true love” – whatever that is!
Lex Marinos – Australian theatre legend – completes the cast. He’s an Aussie elder looking for butter chicken too, but he’ll settle for love. The male bonding with Nasir is truthfully wrought. It’s an astute piece of casting as Marinos brings the patina of other immigrant Australian works into this premiere production.
Lighting design by Saint Clair is impressive (even with opening night power surges!). It’s a tricky venue to light well and her colour palette is exceptional as are the bold moods effected. It’s always great to see women excelling in largely male-dominated roles in the theatre. I look forward to seeing more from this ambitious and very competent designer.
Equally impressive is the composition from Sam Chang. It is a rich score. Subtle at times, supportive always and entirely unique.
Production design by Rita Naidu reflects the unevenness of the play. There is an impressive corridor running one length of the stage cut from white lace curtains. Its beauty resonates with the stories of the Taj Mahal and pure love. Its materiality lands firmly in Australian suburbia. As a symbol of the tensions in Australian South Asian culture it is a great idea. The production offers snippets of what we recognise as a kind of Bollywood inspired movement (Shyamla Eswaran, Movement Consultant) but the curtains never feature, never swirl – they don’t transform and yet the play genuinely tries to speak to cultural and personal transformation. Some domestic furniture fills the main playing space. A clumsy silhouette of the Taj Mahal’s pointed arches and rectangles adorns the back wall. I am guessing this is Nasir’s handywork.
kwento join a growing number of companies bringing South Asian stories to our large and small stages across Sydney. They continue a commitment to engaging with new writing, POC creative teams and working from shared lived experiences. Companies like kwento – and, in particular, the co-directors Kenneth Moraleda and Jordan Shea – continue to grow a vital theatre audience. The wheel turns slowly. Long may it turn!
The Marriage Agency is definitely one for sweethearts and gets us thinking about all the ways in which individuals find each other beyond the ubiquitous apps.
Image Credit: Phil Erbacher