Review by Brittany Crowell
The audience enters into the large auditorium at Theatre for a New Audience’s Samuel H. Scripp’s theater. Retro advertisements reminiscent of those played during cricket matches on TV in the early oughts are projected onto the large screen obscuring the stage. This is the only inference that audiences are settled into a movie theater to watch Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s New York play writing debut, Public Obscenities.
As the screen lifts, audiences are transported to a dynamic and realistic Kolkata, India, where PhD candidate Choton (Abrar Haque) has brought his director of photography boyfriend Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell) to complete his thesis documentary on queer identities in India. Fluorescents buzz and dogs bark from somewhere vaguely house right, mimicking the sounds of life in this Bengali city. Design elements by scenic designer Peiyi Wong, lighting designer Barbara Samuels, and sound designer Tei Blow transport us halfway across the globe, supported by Enver Chakartash’s costumes and Patircia Marojrie’s props, and are some of the standout elements of this production.
The play, also directed by Chowdhury, lovingly portrays each character in the piece as beautifully flawed and human. Some characters, such as Pishe (Debashis Roy Chowdhury) are based off of the author’s actual family members, and yet can also be related to the habits of aunties or uncles everywhere. All of Chowdhury’s characters are written through a lens of love and are embraced as they are, as the play explores their identities and the ways in which they themselves weave in and out of the realms of shame, love, and public obscenities.
Running at just over three hours, some scenes are nestled too deeply into the everyday. In the play’s opening moments, scholar and photographer, Choton and Raheem respectively, discuss Raheem’s love of old cinema and “slice of life” on film. Public Obscenities, in aiming for this naturalistic approach, both provides audiences with a voyeuristic look into the lives of the apartment’s inhabitants and lingers too long on transitions and moments between the moments that really matter and move the story forward.
Leaving the play, I can say that it transported me around the world to the small apartment in Kolkata and invited me in to view the lives of the folks who have lived there, both in life and in portrait. That being said, I also left the piece wishing for more, wanting the characters to grow or change from their experience, to learn something. I appreciated Chowdhury’s desire to provide the audience screenshots from a visit, but wish that he would have adjusted the aperture to pose deeper questions. While the play transported me to a new place and introduced me to vivid characters, especially the endlessly charming and confident Shou (played by a vivacious Tashnuva Anan), it didn’t open my heart or my mind to new ideas or make me question where the bounds of “appropriate” or “obscenity” may lie – for myself here in New York, or for the characters re-envisioning themselves in Kolkata.
A wonderful production with a strong cast and fabulous design, Public Obscenities left me wanting more, even after spending three hours with its characters and exploring the bounds of its world; I was left wanting to adventure to other parts of it, but not in a satisfying way.
PUBLIC OBSCENITIES – written & directed by Shayok Misha Chowdhury
FEATURING: Tashnuva Anan (Shou); Abrar Haque (Choton); Golam Sarwar Harun (Jitech); Gargi Mukherjee (Pishimoni); NaFis (Sebanti); Jakeem Dante Powell (Raheem); Debashis Roy Chowdhury (Pishe)
Scenic design by Peiyi Wong; costume design by Enver Chakartash; lighting design by Barbara Samuels; sound design by Tei Blow; video & projection by Johnny Moreno; properties by Patricia Marjorie; dramaturgy by Sarah Lunnie; cultural dramaturgy by Sukanya Chakrabarti; intimacy direction by Teniece Divya Johnson; and hair and wig design by Tommy Kurzman. Produced by Theatre for a New Audience: Jeffrey Horowitz, founding artistic director; Robert E. Buckholz, board chair; Dorothy Ryan, managing director & Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company: Maria Manuela Goyanes, artistic director; Kimberly E. Douglas, managing director; original production by Soho Rep and the NAATCO National Partnership Project. Running Through February 18 at the Samuel H. Scripps mainstage (262 Ashland Pl, Brooklyn, NY 11217). https://www.tfana.org/current-season/public-obscenities/overview/