When an innocent high school girl from an Indian middle class family shrouded by its customs is caught having sex on camera, the paparazzi is the least of her worries.
The premiere of Anupama Chandrashekhar's "Free Outgoing" at East West Players, throws a spotlight on one such scandal. After her critically acclaimed roles on "Silicon Valley", "True Blood" and ABC's new hit "Quantico," we see Anna Khaja play a widowed Indian mother, Malini, in one of her strongest roles yet. Malini is devastated after her daughter Deepa's infamous MMS clip goes viral and does everything in her power to get her children's lives together. Caught in the midst of this really awkward situation through no fault of his own is USC graduate Kapil Talwalkar as Malini's son and Deepa's brother Sharan .
While Deepa gets locked in her room following the scandal, Jeevan, the guy from her sex-tape and the reason for all this commotion is busy packing for Thailand to escape the whole scandal. As the disgrace falls on Deepa alone with Jeevan and his father mocking the situation to her face, Indian society reveals its sexual double standards. Interestingly Jeevan's face doesn't show in the sex tape he recorded (and the audience never sees him onstage). Jeevan's friends, on the other hand, are busy giggling at the MMS and branding Deepa a slut while an entire family is destroyed.
"Free Outgoing" is complex, suffused with themes of guilt, helplessness, and loss of innocence, all complemented by Snehal Desai's meticulous direction. Desai takes us on a ride through South India as the play reveals Malini in a beautiful sari, and Anil Kumar donning the look of a stereotypical South Indian with his greasy-haired, flirtatious self. Kumar plays Ramesh, Malini's colleague and sympathizer. Apart from playing extremely demanding and pivotal roles, the two complement their acting with authentic Indian accents to match the rhythm in which the play was originally written.
With familiar 'Devdas' and 'Chennai Express' movie posters facing Lord Ganesha, the audience is teleported to Chennai, India thanks to Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's efforts on set design.
In short but powerful acts, Kavi Ladnier is the harbinger of bad news. First, as the principal, expelling both Deepa and Sharan from school. Later, she appears as the neighbor, Kokila, who asks the family of three, already left devastated by the ravages of customs and society, to leave the apartment. One cannot help but extol Ladnier's skills on stage even as she plays some of the most loathsome characters in the 90-minute production.
The play's depiction of complete chaos is enhanced by Khaja's acting as she plays the desolate and miserable mother forced to take responsibility for her offspring's sins. The sound of her desperate laments resonate through East West Players as she begs the principal to let her children continue school or when she tries to convince Kokila to let her live in her home or even when she importunes Ramesh to take her daughter away from her. She gives shape to some of the most powerful and emotionally stirring moments of the play as she tries to pick up the pieces of her broken home.
The entire play is like a crescendo, with Malini's predicament worsening with every scene.
The other actor always keeping us on our toes is the Talwalker as the young Sharan. Showcasing all the traits of a teenager with his unapologetic and unpredictable self, he possesses a gravitas that defies his comparatively lesser experience in theatre. Amidst all this havoc, we see Sharan evolve from a naïve school boy to the man of the family as he finally accuses Ramesh of watching his sister's MMS clip. As both a rebellious son and an elder brother, Sharan often proves to be the only rational voice in the household and brings his character to life as he finally implores Malini to stop 'whoring' out his sister when the situation gets out of hand.
While Deepa is mortified by her family and friends, locked up in her room, and denied basic necessities of life, the audience never sees her face. While Malini and Sharan are busy passing her notes and hurling insults at her, the audience is left to only fathom the horrifying state Deepa is reduced to. We never see it for ourselves. Desai explains this is a tactic to avert the audience from judging and sensationalizing Deepa for her actions. Anupama wanted her audience to concentrate on the ripples and not the pebble which caused them in order to decipher the bigger picture. This is not Deepa's story. Deepa isn't the protagonist here — double-dealing backstabbing Indian society is.
"Free Outgoing" is the story of people who draw sadistic pleasure out of sharing scandalous information while ignoring the lives which are destroyed by their conservatism. People who are now defined by cellphones and the internet but cannot care enough about its implications. Indian society has adopted Western technology but still hasn't embraced Western culture, and while the cellphones were initially promoted for having 'free outgoing' calls, they have led us to a society which is neither free nor outgoing.
"Free Outgoing" played at East West Players through March 12th, 2017. Tickets are $25. For more information, visit http://www.eastwestplayers.org/on-the-stage/free-outgoing/
Contact writer Parth Aggarwal at firstname.lastname@example.org