13 Aug The Great Celestial Cow, 2003

‘Celestial Cow’ jumps over the moon
TheatreFIRST’S production of “The Great Celestial Cow” is — brace yourselves — an “udder” delight.

by Chad Jones, STAFF WRITER
Alameda Times-Star, March 27, 2003

Sue Townsend’s funny and involving drama invites us into a world of immigrants and makes us feel at home. That doesn’t mean things are all warm and cozy. On the contrary. The life of an immigrant family relocated from rural India to suburban London can be quite jarring and uncomfortable. Townsend, the British author of the comic “Diaries of Adrian Mole” novels, is a deft writer whose theatrical roots go back to the revolutionary Joint Stock Theatre Company, whose members have also included David Hare, Caryl Churchill and Hanif Kureishi. With great efficiency and heart, Townsend takes less than two hours to tell the story of nine years in the lives of an Indian family readjusting to life in the Western world far beyond their South Asian roots.

Director Clive Chafer and an adept cast of nine evoke the difficulties of holding on to one’s cultural background in the face of racism and persecution. The production is simple. Brightly colored Indian fabrics adorn one wall of the performance space in downtown Oakland’s YWCA. The focus is entirely on the actors and the serious, ultimately sad, story they tell. Thankfully, Townsend’s script also makes room for humor and fantasy.

When we meet matriarch Sita (Rica Anderson), she’s milking her beloved cow, Princess, played by Lauren Grace manipulating a life-size cow puppet designed by Jenny Saunt. Sita’s affection for Princess provides great comfort over the years, especially as Sita’s life becomes complicated as her own independence — a virtue in Western culture — challenges her traditional role of wife to Raj (Amit Garg) and mother to daughter Bibi (Ruchira Shah) and privileged son Prem (Rishi Shukla). Reunited with her husband, who has been in England for five years preparing for his family’s arrival, Sita is suddenly shy and ashamed of her body. Because her survival and that of her children depended on her work, she had no time to worry about keeping her figure. As Raj unwraps his wife’s sari, the scene turns into a musical number straight out of a Bollywood film. The more involved Sita becomes in life in the London neighborhood of Southall, the more depressing her story becomes. Her husband, son and elders (Rachel Rehmet and Viji Raghunathan) rail against her for being too Western, too outspoken.

Her flagging spirit is bolstered by her daughter, who defies oppressive gender roles to become a confident, ambitious, respectful young woman. She also take support from her British friends, especially lively Rose (Grace again), whose open mind and heart are nearly as grand as her sense of humor. As Sita, Anderson gives a deeply felt performance that provides an emotional center to this ambitious tale. For every small triumph — another woman breaks free from always having to ask a man for permission — there is an emotional setback. Townsend’s final, rather shocking bit of theatricality involves a group of Indian women being harassed by British men. The men become cow handlers and the women, their herd. The scene ends in a cattle revolt, but years of oppression and being caught between two cultures take the play into the darkness of mental illness. Rather than wallowing in grim reality, the play aims for a brighter, more spiritual resolution.

“The Great Celestial Cow” provides a happy ending, of sorts, to a mostly unhappy life.

Chad Jones—Alameda Times-Star

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