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0 out of 4 stars

Better Parts

Written, performed and directed

by Nicole Stamp

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Rating: ***

Fish Eyes

Written and performed

by Anita Majumdar

Directed by Gregory Prest

Rating: **

Both at Theatre Passe Muraille

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Backspace in Toronto

Superheroes, Indian deities and office temps make fleeting but life-altering appearances in Better Parts and Fish Eyes, two sassy shows written and performed by, respectively, Nicole Stamp and Anita Majumdar that take a slice-and-dice approach to displaying cultural identities on stage. Both are presented as part of an initiative by Theatre Passe Muraille and Obsidian Theatre Company with codename Stage 3 -- a multiethnic (including plain old white folks) fusion of nine plays running in repertory throughout the fall.

Similarities end there. Each woman follows her own stylistic and performance muse, to very different results. While Stamp's Better Parts is short, intoxicatingly written and joyously performed, Majumdar's Fish Eyes is a spunky but overextended, one-note sketch that hits Indian stereotypes right out of the park but struggles to find the truth behind them. There's a reason behind, and a lesson to learn from, the different fortunes of both.

Stamp's 20-minute performance piece is a carefully worded foray into the inner life of Nicole, an office temp, as she walks home from work. To lift her battered spirits, our supply-stealing temp indulges herself and her audience in a story of the perfect downtown woman: someone whose culinary skills, low-rise jeans, killer smile and dark eyes can turn heads, make straight women go lesbian and gay men straight. Bankers, professors and artists adore this Noam Chomsky-reading, leftie goddess who's still "quite a girl."

It's a story about today's Toronto in all its cultural mayhem and wonders, and the artist's Caribbean roots are only a tiny fraction of it. Stamp creates a world that is aware of race but not divided by it. That such a recognizable world also plays out on a fantasy level is a smart comment on how far we've come in Toronto on the race issue (among other subjects) and how much is yet to be done.

The real irony in Better Parts was that as she stood on stage, Stamp came as close as possible to living her own fantasy. Her art became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The performance will only be stronger if she stops interrupting it with mood-breaking asides -- we deserve to live out that fantasy with her for 20 whole minutes -- and slows the tempo even more to allow her flow of words to settle on our ears. As Paul Clifford's moody and witty bass playing followed the rhythm and rhyme of the writing to perfection, Better Parts came to a sharp, tantalizing end.

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Whatever lesson in brevity absorbed by Stamp has eluded Majumdar, who took her sweet fringe-style show and inflated it to the point of dramatic obesity. ( Fish Eyes made its debut at last year's SummerWorks Festival to enthusiastic responses and was retooled for Harbourfront Centre's Hatch series last November and for an independent production at Theatre Passe Muraille this past June.) It's the story of Meena, a South Asian teenager pushed by her parents to learn classical Indian dance when all she wants is to fall in love with the school's sexist stud and live a "normal" life. It's told from two points of view: Meena's and her old, Raj-surviving dance teacher Kalyani Aunty, a crotchety woman whose ideal man is as handsome as John Ritter and as smart as Lord Krishna. Good luck, aunty.

The twist to this trapped-between-two-cultures predictable narrative is Meena's ambivalent relationship to Indian dance, which at once connects her and disconnects her from her roots and dreams. This ambivalence makes Fish Eyes a bit more than an Indian-flavoured Billy Elliot, where dance was viewed in absolute, live-or-die terms.

The problem is in what passes for humour in Fish Eyes, which, with minor exceptions, is on the same broad note from beginning to end. Everybody is a stereotype; everything is a joke. The performance is equally lacking in grace. Majumdar may well be a wonderful dancer but she is in urgent need of vocal training and a stronger director than Gregory Prest to guide her on stage. In the small Backspace of Theatre Passe Muraille, she was screaming her lines and overdoing the impersonations. Every time she shouted "Hit it" to the sound engineer, I felt my eardrums reverberating.

By the time Fish Eyes has taken its third or fourth digression or returned to the high-school dance with more mental tenacity than Carrie, it's clear that Majumdar is losing control of her story. Attempts at pathos (particularly in the love-life department of the teacher and her pupil) are mechanically injected into the performance, as if you someone told Majumdar to make 'em cry now that she made 'em laugh. This sound advice may work for Bollywood, but it doesn't for a stage show that also wants to make a serious statement about cultural appropriation and the complexity of racial identity in a place like Toronto.

At Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille until Nov. 5 (416-504-7529).

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