Toronto’s Ravi Jain is at home in the theatre, and with A Brimful of Asha, at Soulpepper till Saturday during its national tour, he and his mom, Asha, make everyone feel at home, greeting each audience member with a fresh samosa and a “Thank you for coming!” Are they getting into character or just being themselves? “I’m not an actor,” begins Asha. What they present, with more reality than The Bachelor, is “not a play” but “a dispute” over the attempt to arrange Ravi’s marriage.
Asha and Ravi give contrasting perspectives on what happened when Ravi, at age 27, went to his parents’ homeland India to give an acting workshop in 2007 and they decided to come along to find him a bride. On each side of the generational and cultural divide, the question seems so clear cut whether it is for the parents to choose when and to whom their child will be married. But there are points to be made on both sides. As Apu says on the Simpsons, “Mother, come on, you know that 1 in 25 arranged marriages ends in divorce.”
Asha wears a vibrant fuchsia sari; her son wears a traditional Indian shirt with jeans and sneakers. No costume designer is credited, as the two are surely wearing their own clothes. The simple, homey set is a dining table and two chairs on a rug-covered platform, framed by a curtain in the centre of which is a wide-screen monitor where Jain periodically refers to family photos, maps, and video clips (set designer, Julie Fox; lighting and video designer, Beth Kates).
Ravi Jain is the director of this show he created with his mother primarily through improvisation, and he is an experienced, thoroughly trained actor and award-winning director (2012 Pauline McGibbon Award; founding artistic director of Why Not Theatre; an artist in residence at Soulpepper Theatre Company; inaugural artistic director in residence at The Theatre Centre), but while it is sometimes evident that Ravi is stepping in to keep a scene on track, it is untrained Asha, a self-described “dedicated housewife and abused mother”, who steals scene after scene. This is the role Asha was born to play.
Although the duo has performed this show many times in many cities since its premiere at Tarragon in 2012, it does not feel over-rehearsed, in fact it feels perpetually spontaneous, and it probably is a little different every night. The show is primarily humorous but with an undercurrent of tension always ready to pull you in. There is little by way of overt action and the simple production looks easy, an occasionally heated conversation as mother and son sit at the table drinking tea, but the story they tell is a rollercoaster ride, a contentious and intimate conversation to which they welcome us as witnesses. Asha very much seems to be enjoying being herself, and yet the two of them are going over a lot of emotionally charged memories and it must be a taxing experience to relive such painful and personal conflict in front of a packed audience night after night.
As early as age five, Ravi regularly entertained the “extended family” that was his community by mimicking India’s legendary film actor Amitabh Bachchan. Asha teases that, by pursuing a life in the theatre, Ravi is not allowing himself to move on from the first of life’s four stages, establishing a “real” profession, onto the next stage of finding a wife. The debate is real, but so is the love. At least in the context of the Jain family, the intent of arranged marriage is not to dictate but to ensure a secure and happy future for the child. Fittingly, the name Asha means “hope”.