Playwright Anusree Roy wastes no time in immersing her audience in the ice-cold bleakness of Brothel #9.
In the first scene of her hard-hitting new play, Rekha (Pamela Sinha) arrives in Calcutta, expecting to begin work in a light-bulb factory. She quickly discovers, however, that she has actually been sold to a pimp named Birbal (Ash Knight) by her brother-in-law.
When she pleads to go back to her village, Birbal threatens her with violence and tells her matter-of-factly that he will easily be able to track her down if she tries to escape. Moments later, local police officer Salaudin (Sanjay Talwar) stumbles upon the scene and Rekha thinks he might be her salvation - but instead the corrupt cop drags her to the back room and rapes her, becoming her first "client."
All through Rekha's terrified howls, an older prostitute Jamuna (Anusree Roy) sings to herself and makes fish curry, seemingly completely unaffected.
Yes, that's just the first minutes of Brothel #9. There's hardly a moment here to get your bearings or catch your breath. And what comes as a shock is how quickly we - like innocent, virginal, religious Rekha - acclimatize to the warped morality of this world where sex slavery is treated with a shrug. The horror wears off and, within a few scenes, the monsters of Birbal, Salaudin and Jamuna have become complex, complicated humans simply going about their day-to-day existence.
The lack of judgment Roy exhibits toward her characters is the chief strength of the on-the-rise writer's latest play, which she researched by interviewing sex workers on several trips to Calcutta.
Roy's talents as an actor are even stronger: She delivers a fascinating, central performance as Jamuna, a friend and a rival to Rekha who may buy her treats one moment and then casually threaten to cut off her hands the next. She so fully inhabits this intensely earthy character, it's engrossing to merely watch her move about the stage, making tea and cutting vegetables with an odd, foot-operated slicer (an extremely sharp utensil that remains onstage ominously for the entire show).
The men are less fully explored, but also full of compelling contradictions. Birbal, for instance, has a deep love for his ailing wife and works hard as a pimp to pay for her medical treatment. Somehow he is simply blind to the contradiction of putting one woman up on a pedestal, while treating others as chattel.
At first, Brothel #9 appears to be a more fearless, less hopeful version of Ruined, Lynn Nottage's recent Pulitzer-Prize winning play about a brothel in war-torn Congo. Over the course of the play, however, a modicum of hope does creep in. Unfortunately, the level of threat in the play drops precipitously at the same time.
While the characters in Brothel #9 are strongly drawn - and uniformly well-acted - the two-act play's structure is ultimately too top-heavy. It loses its driving force over the course of its first half, and the intermission comes not at a climax, but a lull in the action. After that, Roy's play and Nigel Shawn Williams's direction - so exact at the start - lose their focus and become more of a study than a drama.
It's nonetheless an impressive work from Roy, in one of her first attempts to branch out from the solo shows ( Pyaasa, Letters to my Grandma) she made her name with.
Finally, a mild warning: The characters speak in heavily accented dialect of English that - to my ears, anyway - was difficult to understand at first. Don't panic: Like Rekha to her dark circumstance, you'll adjust faster than you expect.
Brothel #9 continues at the Factory Theatre in Toronto through March 27.
- Written by Anusree Roy
- Directed by Nigel Shawn Williams
- Starring Anusree Roy, Pamela Sinha
- At Factory Theatre in Toronto