Emma Van Lare, left, and Sango Tajima appear in California Shakespeare Theater’s “House of Joy.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

‘House of Joy’ a rich fairy tale set in imperial India

Madhuri Shekar tells complex story in Cal Shakes premiere

Who knew there were female bodyguards protecting the royal families of India over centuries? What a fascinating bit of the history of South Asia to explore, as playwright Madhuri Shekar does in “House of Joy,” a world premiere at California Shakespeare Theater.

During the Mughal Empire, when this fanciful play is set (in the 17th century), the imperial harem was guarded by women, according to the play’s program.

Three such guards appear in this story: the stern head guard, Gulal (a captivating Nandita Shenoy), the playful little Roshni (an equally appealing Sango Tajima) and the central figure, the quieter and more thoughtful Hamida (gracefully played by Emma Van Lare).

All three, plus the harem eunuch, Salima (a comically flamboyant Rotimi Agbabiaka), consider themselves lucky to have landed such prestigious jobs.

But when Roshni and Hamida happen to observe the Emperor’s favorite queen, Mariyam (a toughingly desperate Rinabeth Apostol), attempting to escape the palace, instead of reporting her, Hamida lets her off with a reprimand.

If the Emperor’s favorite is so eager to flee, is this really a house of joy?

And thus begins Hamida’s journey toward a deeper understanding of the world in which she lives, and of her own conscience.

Shekar frames the two-act as a myth-like story; the characters (who also include the Emperor’s daughter, played by Lipica Shah, and Raji Ahsan as the court doctor) offer introductory commentary.

Written and performed (under Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s lively direction) as a fluid mix of formal and contemporary speech (with some humor), the play zeroes in on Hamida’s new-found inner courage, as she becomes aware of the Emperor’s cruel and incompetent ways.

The characters interact in complex ways within a densely packed context: dire times (war, famine, rigid class barriers and more), a budding romance, a daring and liberating escape, female empowerment — and, offstage, an emperor and a child. So there’s a surfeit of circumstances to attract our attention.

As rich as the storytelling is, ultimately it’s hard to feel emotionally connected to anyone. The queen and princess are imperious, Salima is seduced by the glory of his position and the bodyguards are, well, just as war-like as men, boasting about their skills as warriors. (“The world doesn’t want us to fight!” says Roshni, but they can and do.)

Yes, it’s a fairy tale, but still, I wanted to know and care more deeply about at least some of them.

REVIEW

House of Joy

Presented by California Shakespeare Theater

Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 1

Tickets: $39 to $63

Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org

Theater

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