Saturday, May 07, 2011

Huck and Holden

Go See the Delightful HUCK AND HOLDEN at Ensemble

What happens when an Indian student (Indian from India, not a Native American) comes in contact with an American culture that challenges all of his values, traditions and plans for life? That conundrum is at the core of Rajiv Joseph’s HUCK AND HOLDEN.

Joseph, who was born and raised in the Cleveland area, is a graduate of Cleveland Heights High School, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, wrote the third season of TV’s NURSE JACKIE, and is the author of BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO. Tiger is now playing on Broadway in a production staring Robin Williams. He is the author of numerous plays. HUCK AND HOLDEN was his first work.

According to the author, HUCK AND HOLDEN is based on his father's experiences in coming to the States. It is also about his being of mixed race. His mother is of French and German ancestry and his father emigrated to the States from India. Joseph states, "Being mixed-race has always been a part of my identity. You are never fully one thing or the other. You always feel a little apart, a little bit of an outsider, even when you are with your own family. That's an interesting perspective for looking at the world." He takes that perspective and, in HUCK AND HOLDEN, creates a delightful piece of theatre.

Navin, an Indian student attending an American university, is the dutiful son of traditional Hindu parents. He’s been brought up to believe in arranged marriages, virginity until matrimony, being a serious student and reincarnation.

His path toward accomplishing his life goals is interrupted when in his required English lit course, the professor gives the assignment, “Write an essay comparing and contrasting Huck and Holden’s respective journeys and how society informs their characters and affects their feelings of self worth.” Who are Huck and Holden? What is “self worth?” What does this have to do with his success as an engineering student? Navin’s life is about to change.

Off to the library goes our hero. He meets Michelle, a free spirit music major, who knows less about Huck and Holden than Navin, but she is sassy, beautiful, African American and obsessed with the Kama Sutra. Not a stranger duo could the fates have brought together.

Things are complicated, but with the help of his imaginary friend, a former schoolmate named Singh, a Sikh whom Navin admired during school days for his audacity and coolness, Navin pursues Michelle despite his hesitation and guilt. The path is aided, or made more complicated by the appearance of Kali, the black Hindu goddess of internal energy. The results are a hysterical series of scenes in which the sweating, stumbling, babbling, pineapple-and-onion addicted pizza eater, discovers sex and personal freedom.

Why the title? Holden Caulfield of CATCHER IN THE RYE and Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s novels, share the qualities of being adolescents, runaways from society, seeking independence, growth and stability in their lives. Navin, in fact, is following the same path. Huck and Holden both encountered tests for them to pass on their way to adulthood, and so does Navin.

Under the spot-on direction of Celeste Cosentino, the Ensemble production is wonderful. Every element of the production works.

Daniel Caraballo is a total delight as the mumbling, confused, frustrated Navin. He has an expressive face, puppy dog eyes and possesses a great feel for comedy timing. It’s worth going to the production just to see this talented young man in action!

Kristi Little makes Michelle a real person, filled with gut-level reactions to life’s issues. Like Caraballo, her comic timing is right on target. The duo seems born to play these roles.

Ammen Sulieman is on target as Singh, Navin’s Jiminy Cricket, but in this case his anti-conscience and guide. Neda Spears is a hoot as the multi-armed goddess Kali, complete with a necklace of simulated baby’s heads. Kyle Carthens, as Michelle’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, does a show stopping hysterical scene in which he teaches Navin the facts of life including a move called waxing the booty. I assure you, this one isn’t in the Kama Sutra, especially when done with the help of a pizza box!

Joseph Mitchell’s set design is wonderful, adding to the whimsy. Charles Ritchie has done a fine job of working with the Puerto Rican Caraballo, to create a very acceptable Indian accent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ensemble’s HUCK AND HOLDEN is a well performed, quirky, charming, modern comedy that is a total delight. This is a go see! (Caveat: if you are up-tight, the simulated sex scenes and references might not to be your liking. And, this is definitely not a play for the kiddies.)