By Lauren Van Hemert
When my grandfather came to this country from Turkey, he brought with him some crazy Ladino folktales about a Jewish trickster named Joha. While he did share his folktales, songs, and even bits here and there about his journey, including a story about fudging his date of birth at the border, I never heard much about the challenges he faced trying to assimilate to a new country and culture. I never had an intellectual understanding of his immigrant experience.
And that’s one of the themes Sue Townsend’s play The Great Celestial Cow explores. It’s the story of an Asian woman named Sita, who leaves her beloved country India with her two children to join her husband in England. Although she’s forced to leave her precious cow Princess behind, Sita is optimistic and hopeful for a new life, and perhaps even a new cow. But England is not what she expects it to be. In Leicester there are no cows, farms, or communal villages. In fact, here in the big city, walls echo “to make a woman’s laughter sound defiant and coarse.” So, women like Sita are silenced, and their spirits squashed.
The one aspect of Burning Coal’s production of this play that prevails is the enthusiasm and energy radiating from the diverse cast. At the center of the story is Sita, played by an impassioned Seema Kukreja. Sita runs the gamut of emotions from pure unadulterated joy to angst, and Kukreja delivers, flinging herself into this role wholeheartedly. Notable too are the performances of Maneesha Lassiter and Snehal Bhagwat, who play Sita’s snide extended family, Fat Auntie (Masi) and Dadima respectively. The pair, along with Pimpila Violette, who plays Sita’s friend and co-worker Lila, provide some of the more entertaining moments of the show.
Unfortunately, however, Sonia Desai’s haphazard direction mars the fluidity of the story. Scenes feel choppy and are only strung together through Juan Isler’s sound design. Inefficient and sometimes overly ambitious set transitions disrupt the flow. Nine actors, including Lassiter, Bhagwat, and Violette take on 30 different roles, which sometimes gets confusing. And what’s worse, some of Desai’s blocking impairs audience sightlines, no matter where you are sitting, during pivotal moments.
I think part of the problem here is the fact that thematically Townsend’s play is not only an immigrant story but also a feminist story. Here, the feminist story is a bit meatier and might even work as a standalone play. The same might be said of the immigrant part of the story. Unfortunately, neither really work tangentially which contributes to the show’s inconsistencies.
Still, presenting The Great Celestial Cow now, which at its heart is both a story about immigrants migrating to the West and a study of feminist awakening, feels relevant and timely. I just wish this production, and the script for that matter, was more clearsighted in direction and execution.
The Great Celestial Cow runs through April 28th at Burning Coal Theatre. For more information visithttps://burningcoal.org/.