Meet James (Justin Rogers), a college-student boarder, whose alter ego is DJ Jimmy J. He’s dressed as King Mahabali and greets guests (us) for a special surprise party for his landlady, Mrs. Krishnan (Kalyani Nagarajan). The festivities take place in the backroom of Krishnan’s grocery store. That’s the basic premise for Mrs. Krishnan’s Party, a 75-minute immersive theater comedy where the audience participates with the cast including cooking Indian food and some light housekeeping.
This play is a sequel to Krishnan’s Dairy, which New Zealand’s Indian Ink Theatre Company debuted twenty-two years ago. The Kahilu Theatre cleverly converted its main stage into a storage room, complete with boxes of food supplies, a small kitchen area, and an elevated stage, where DJ Jimmy J played prerecorded dance tunes on his Apple laptop.
There’s the main table, for about 12 select guests, and it’s surrounded by three tiers of seats; wallflowers, the cheeky seats, and party animals. Roughly 150 came out last Sunday afternoon to be part of this unique interactive play. Streamers hung from the ceiling and flower petals were scattered on the floor.
As the plot develops, we learn that we are celebrating Onam, the annual Hindu holiday whose harvest festivities center around death, rebirth, and goodwill to all – much like Easter. James is the perfect host, he learns our first names as we enter, and distributes bright colored scarves for us to wear in preparation for his landlady’s arrival.
As Mrs. Krishnan enters the back room, she finds the lights out and begins to grumble just before we all yell, “Surprise!” Startled with the presence of a room full of strangers, Krishnan starts to take her anger out on her foolish but well-intentioned boarder. As she interacts with the audience, we quickly learn that she demands proper manners when addressing her – “Thank you, Mrs. Krishnan!” is the correct response she’s looking for.
As Krishnan starts to prep daal for her unexpected guests, she invites two people up to the kitchen to sauté onions, garlic, and stir the rice. They turn out to be the theatre’s Executive Director, Deb Goodwin, and stage tech Brian Pate. The awkward moment gets even weirder as “Close To You” by The Carpenters plays in the background while they work side by side. While we’re watching them tackle their cooking tasks, a theatre guest willingly grabs a broom and dustpan to sweep up the rice James has clumsily dropped on the floor.
Between all the festivities, the audience starts learning more about the main character’s backstory. Since the death of her husband, Mrs. Krishnan has worked hard to make a good life for her adult son Apu, who has promised to visit her at the party for Onam. A series of cellphone conversations with Apu reveals even more details about their relationship.
After some inner reflections about life and her late husband, Mrs. Krishnan decides to sell her shop, return to India, and get on with her life. James, too, decides he wants to move out but is naïve about how the real world works.
While some of the subplots add more detail to the character’s lives, they don’t drag down the upbeat party theme. This play seems to work well for all ages, and several children eagerly helped passing out balloons. Everyone had fun bopping them around the room. Somehow the nasty wind and rain waiting for us outside faded away while we were in the company of Mrs. Krishnan and James.
Putting aside her grief and sadness, Mrs. Krishnan changes into a vibrant outfit and transforms into a real party animal. Her wild tabletop Indian dance moves bring the entertaining theatrical party to a close. For those who decided to stick around, they were treated to a delightful dish of daal.
The play’s overall message is about strangers becoming friends. Even though we have different backgrounds, we can still come together as a community and celebrate life.
Rogers and Nagarajan were brilliant in their roles, and if we lived in a more populated area, I could see this play running several nights at a small theatre. Here’s looking hopefully forward to a third chapter in the series.
Listen to my audio interview with Justin Lewis, the show’s director/co-writer, and learn even more about Mrs. Krishnan’s Party.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and a Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.
Photos: Steve Roby