Theater Review: “Mrs. Krishnan’s Party” — Daal M for Merriment

By David Greenham

Let’s face it, we could all use a celebration of renewal and togetherness that crosses cultural (and political) borders.

Mrs. Krishnan’s Party by Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis. Directed by Justin Lewis. Set and props design by John Verryt. Lighting design by Jane Hakaraia. Costume design by Fiona Nichols. Sound design by Liam Kelly. An India Ink Theatre Company staging presented by Arts Emerson, Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Boston, through April 7.

Mrs. Krishnan (Kalyani Nagarajan) doing some tasting in Mrs. Krishnan’s Party. Photo: Indian Ink Theatre Company

From the moment you’re led to the entrance of the Jackie Liebergott black box, you  sense something is different. The customary ritual is for a well-meaning volunteer to do their best to point out your seat. But, for visiting New Zealand-based company India Ink Theatre Company’s Mrs. Krishnan’s Party, you’re met by James (Justin Rogers) your broadly smiling and affable host. He wants to know your name, and chatters about his plan for the evening as he leads you to your seat and introduces you to the audience members who are sitting around you. James is dressed in a makeshift, colorful costume inspired by King Mahabali, whose homecoming is celebrated in the Hindu harvest festival of Onam. Tonight, he tells audience members as the evening begins, we’re celebrating the feast of Onam, which is “like Christmas, Easter, and Diwali all in one.”

The catch is that we’re not in a temple or traditional meeting hall, but the back room of Mrs. Krishnan’s Dairy Day bodega, the New Zealand equivalent of a convenience store. James, it turns out, is a college student who is renting a room in the building and has decided to hold a party without telling his overworked landlord, Mrs. Krishnan (Kalyani Nagarajan).

An immersive and interactive performance piece, Mrs. Krishnan’s Party (the run is sold-out) is dramaturgically clunky, raw, silly, and casual. But it’s also charming, caring, hopeful, and surprisingly emotionally rich. Like the delicious smelling red lentil daal that’s prepared, cooked, and served during the show, this entertainment is a satisfying and tasty concoction, though probably not everyone’s cup of tea.

The setting, Krishnan’s Dairy, is familiar ground for the successful India Ink Theatre Company, whose stated goal is to create ‘culturally diverse theatre that combines artful storytelling, mischievous wit and theatrical magic in a way that celebrates our differences but connects us through our shared humanity. This truly unique style promotes community and fosters empathy in audiences across cultures.’ Krishnan’s Dairy was the troupe’s first production and it ran for 25 years, winning numerous awards and traveling throughout the world. This show is a sequel of sorts. It was written specifically for Nagarajan and has been performing/touring since 2019.

At its core, it’s a story of two individuals, James and Mrs. Krishnan, who are both mostly alone in the world. James is a student who aspires to be a DJ; he draws on his indefatigable energy to avoid facing his lack of focus and academic shortcomings. Mrs. Krishnan is a widow; her husband was murdered by an intruder in the dairy. Her son, Abu, is an architect who is too busy and self-involved to visit his mother.

By throwing a surprise party in the dairy’s back room, James hopes to bring the joy of Onam into their lives. As co-playwright Justin Lewis explained in a recent interview, Onam is “a harvest festival, a time of renewal, and what’s remarkable about that festival is that it’s celebrated by all the different religions in Kerala. So, the Christians, the Hindus, the Muslims, everybody celebrates it, and it really brings everybody together. And that’s a lot of what the inspiration for the show is about, it is about connecting people, art, building community, and having a joyous celebration.”

Kalyani Nagarajan in a scene from Mrs. Krishnan’s Party. Photo: Grabb for Excellence

Let’s face it, we could all use a celebration of renewal and togetherness that crosses cultural (and political) borders.

James warms up the audience with silly jokes, music, and encourages everyone to wear a colorful scarf. There’s a little dancing and camaraderie is developed. But, of course, his actions are also calculated to make the crowd a co-conspirator in his scheme.

Predictably, Mrs. Krishnan is livid about the stunt and doesn’t shirk from saying so. No surprise that she soon embraces the situation, and begins to beguile us as she enlists audience members to gather ingredients together  and begin to cook daal for the entire group.

For the genre of interactive theater the experience usually goes no further than this. The actors banter with some of the audience members, which leads to fun hijinks and engagement. But India Ink goes further. After layering on the comic bits, both James and Mrs. Krishnan go through some fully developed emotional dramas. It’s an unusual juxtaposition; broad comedy dovetailed with intimate internal conflicts. That’s the genius of Indian Ink. The characters becomes more endearing, their situations more heartfelt. These revelatory moments add rich flavor to the simmering daal.

Audience members having some fun during a production of Mrs. Krishnan’s Party. Photo: Grabb for Excellence

As James, Justin Rogers is adroitly disarming. He’s almost a caricature at moments, trying way too hard to please everyone at the party. But there is a vulnerability underneath the desperation that is appealing, that encourages the audience to root for him. He’s affable and  — despite considerable insecurity — ever-hopeful.

Nagarajan’s Mrs. Krishnan is a whirlwind of messy, wide-ranging emotions. When the character’s in a rage early on, her words blast by so quickly they’re impossible to make out. But it doesn’t really matter — their meaning is clear. The actress’s improvisational skills are masterful: she effortlessly interacts with audience members, reacting instantly to what she sees or hears and then incorporating it into the action.

The production team of John Verryt (set and props), Jane Hakaraia (lighting), Fiona Nichols costumes), and Liam Kelly (sound), create a unified sense of the mix-and-match aspects of the show’s conceptual eclecticism.

It would be difficult to leave Mrs. Krishnan’s Party without a smile, and convinced that it is a richly entertaining experience. The success of India Ink’s approach is that their lively brand of theater is highly accessible and yet somewhat mysterious. It’s a performance, sure, but it’s also one of the few theatrical experiences where we aren’t just asked to be passive consumers. The show compels audience members to share, amongst themselves, an engaging and enjoyable experience of community. That’s really what theater ought to be about, isn’t it?

David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer on Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the former executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.

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