By Lynn Venhaus

With shimmering visuals and costumes, “House of Joy” shows flashes of dazzling technical brilliance at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Unfortunately, while mysterious and mystical, the storytelling is where it falters.

In a time and a place far, far away, the fictional setting is a South Asian kingdom – let’s just presume the Islamic Mughal Empire (16th-19th century) in around 1666. Apparently, society is segregated and we’re only seeing the females in the palace – and a eunuch who oversees this court of women.

Because it is disorienting at first, the play takes a long time to establish characters and their motives, then crowds the action in the second act, before it rushes to an unsatisfying open-ended conclusion, and overall is not as cohesive as it purports to be.  

It’s as if playwright Madhuri Shekar has decided it’s best if we fill in the blanks ourselves, and the tone is all over the place. Dramaturg Salma S. Zohdi hasn’t connected the dots either.

Perhaps it’s because the loyalties shift between the poorly drawn characters and the story, with its multi-thread subplots that aren’t fully realized, doesn’t give us much to invest in during its two-hour runtime.

Questions, I have questions. Most importantly, why did this play need a rewrite that shifted the focus to a 7-person cast with six females and a same-sex love story? Why is it set in an unnamed empire and an unspecified time? Why does so much action take place off-stage?

While I can’t speak of the original one from earlier productions 2017- 2019, but only the rewrite that premiered in St. Louis, this current plot boils down to palace intrigue and chicanery regarding a power struggle between the emperor and his conniving daughter, Princess Noorah (Aila Ayilam Peck), from an earlier marriage. And unseen rebel forces we don’t know about but are alluded to in conversation.

The unseen despicable old emperor is currently married to a naïve young girl, Mariyam (Emily Marso), who is very pregnant, and living an arranged life she never imagined. Her job is to breed, and after she gives birth to an heir, she’s not as useful.

Lonely and miserable, this innocent queen has fallen in love with the newest palace guard, Roshni (Tina Munoz Pandya) of the all-female imperial harem.

Roshni, with a bloody tragic past that’s rather muddled, was befriended by the sly fox eunuch Salima (Omer Abbas Salem), who recommended her for the job. She had to impress the tough captain of the guards Gulal (Miriam A. Laube), who is demanding and still watches her carefully.

She loves the job, and her best bud working long shifts together in this self-described utopia is Hamida (Sumi Yu).

Salima and Gulal are the ones who know everything going on in the palace and where the loyalties lie. You don’t know if they can be trusted, however – they leave it up to interpretation. But if you are on their good side, then you are protected in the power plays.

What the back-stabbing (or merely stabby) princess wants to pull off – toppling the patriarchy! — seems like a disaster waiting to happen and there are shifting moving parts to the unrest/coup/insurrection, so much so that it’s confusing.

The stereotypical evil princess is merely a caricature in Peck’s hands. Overall, we have two sets of actors – the ones who stay in their lane and then the melodramatic ones who go over the top, as if they are in a daytime soap opera.

Yu is strong as Hamida and tries hard to flesh out her character. Regina Fernandez appears in four minor roles to round out the cast. As the couple at its center, Marso and Pandya are convincing in their passion and desire – and I rooted for them (after all, love is love is love is love).

The dialogue is flecked with modern words and phrases. I’m assuming whatever past century the characters are in, no one said “tittie” or “I’m aware.” This habit of writing period pieces in modern vernacular is often distracting – and annoying.

And as we hear long passages of exposition about what’s gone on in the past and what’s taking place off-site or off-stage, the story remains curiously uninvolving.

There is some bewildering mumbo-jumbo – a dead mother re-appearing as a ghost/apparition and a glowing pile of coals centerstage – that means something we’re supposed to figure out.

The love story overtakes the drama, and its romantic structure is clumsy. Paradise now is a prison for Roshni and Mariyam.

And then, we endure an unnecessary and gratuitous staging of a shockingly graphic sex scene in a boat.  

What is the point here? We already know they are in love, and it is forbidden – she’s married! To the Emperor! And while everyone seems to know, it still is a situation fraught with danger. Illicit affairs have gone on in royal families, this is nothing new nor does it appear to be anything other than a garden variety plot conceit.

Despite whatever direction the intimacy coordinator (Gaby Labotka, who is also the fight choreographer) decided on, the scene is uncomfortable, with its simulation of stimulation and orgasm, and really takes the audience out of the story.

All I could think about was the teacher who brought a busload of (what looked like) junior high kids that I saw in the lobby, and the comments and complaints he/she would have to deal with, and if any parents came along as chaperones.

Yes, the play is for mature audiences. The Rep has stated, for content transparency: “This production contains adult sexual content, language, moments of violence, haze/fog and suggestive moments of smoking.”

Apparently, I’m not the only one who felt uneasy. Since opening night, people have contacted me, recounting patrons audibly gasping and others walking out. There appears to be a harsh negative backlash among longtime theatergoers. The play is polarizing, for there are others who enjoyed it very much.

Defenders will call us prudes and unenlightened. Us rubes here in flyover country don’t know theater and we need to be lectured at every opportunity by professionals who think they know more than we do, because how could we know anything about theater? (Now is the time to shake your head or chuckle or spit-take or whisper your feelings – or curse and shout that I’m very wrong).

I don’t need a lecture, and quite frankly, I’m tired of being told what I should like because it might take me out of my comfort zone (which I don’t mind at all, if it’s well-constructed, well-acted and says something).

I’m “aware.” Art is subjective. This is only my opinion. Whether or not you agree, I consider my role is to explain my view – and if something is worth your time and money.

Not that I need to explain myself, but I have seen many controversial plays, many heralded shows that fall short in a certain venue or a regional group’s interpretation. It happens. Isn’t the first rule of theater “know your audience”?

Go ahead, push boundaries, if it helps the story and its impact. Was it necessary to convey a romance in such a way? No. Discretion would have gotten the point across with several kisses and embraces.

For the record, I consider The Rep’s “Take Me Out” in 2005, part of its acclaimed but short-lived “Off the Ramp” series, to be one of the finest productions I have ever seen, and I sat very, very close to full frontal nudity while ball player characters rinsed, lathered, and repeated in shower scenes. (Fun Fact: I won an Illinois Press Association award for that review, back when they awarded reviews, and I was a full-time newspaper employee).

Of course, “House of Joy” is more than one incendiary scene, but by the time chaos and revolt occurs, is anyone on the edge of their seat? And do we really understand what is happening, and who’s aligned with who?

Its ambition is to be epic in scope, and the play is being misrepresented by comparing it to more cinematic genre-busting fare, calling it “Swashbuckling”? This is nothing close to DC’s Wonder Woman or the bad-ass Marvel Cinematic Universe women in “Black Panther.”

Of course, I’m all for women power, for I stand on the shoulders of giants. Sisters doing it for themselves is reason to celebrate. Getting away from abuse is necessary, especially for the queen. Can we get something to cheer about that’s lucid?

Playwright Shekar comes with quite a resume, full of awards and recognition, and has television and film credits as well. It doesn’t matter what she did before or after this play to a puzzled audience watching “House of Joy.”

If this is the first time this version has been presented, perhaps it needs to be workshopped further to make it stronger and more appealing.

Nevertheless, the production elements are stunning in execution – particularly what’s swirling on the on-stage screen, the collaboration between Projections Designer Stefania Bulbarella, Projections Programmer Devin Kinch, Projections Animator/Illustrator Joaquin Dagnino and Associate Projections Designer Brian Pacelli, who take it to next-level by changing it constantly and expanding the panoramic vistas.

That technical razzle-dazzle is complemented by Lighting Designer Sarah Hughey and Sound Designer Porchanok “Nok” Kanchanabanca. The costumes designed by Oona Natesan are exotic and elegant, with outstanding hairstyling (no name in program).

Director Lavina Jadhwani utilizes a spare stage designed by Dahlia Al-Habeli where movement flows crisply, and the palace guards are choreographed by Aparna Kalyanaraman.

Because this is what I consider a work-in-progress, in her program notes, Jadhwani described putting this show together as “jumping onboard a moving train.” Maybe some of us found it to be a trainwreck – it needs to be disassembled and put back together logically.

I didn’t find “House of Joy” joyous or fun or exciting or any of the words being used in marketing. Sure, it’s about “all you need is love” or “love is the answer” or “the love you take is equal to the love you make.” I think.

I’d like to have reasons to determine its impact. Spoiler alert: We don’t really know what happens to most of the characters when it ends, so how can we be moved or know what to feel when it leaves us hanging?

Answers, I’d like answers.

Photos by Eric Woolsey.

“House of Joy” is being presented Aug. 28 – Sept. 18 on The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ mainstage, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves. For schedule of performances and ticket information, visit www.repstl.org.

Proof of a full COVID-19 vaccination and a valid ID, or a negative COVID test taken 24 hours before the performance, are required for entry into any Repertory Theatre event. Masks are highly encouraged, but optional. Front of House Staff will have one-time use masks on hand for patrons that would like to use them.

This season’s exhilarating offerings feature contemporary plays by Madhuri Shekar  and Dominique Morisseau, classics by Noël Coward and Agatha Christie,  a musical tribute to Stephen Sondheim and the return of ‘A Christmas Carol’ 

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (The Rep) Augustin Family Artistic Director, Hana S. Sharif, and Managing Director, Danny Williams, are excited to announce the 2022-2023 show lineup for the 56th Season. The Rep is thrilled to welcome audiences back this fall with a season filled with world-class productions, a joyful mix of classics featuring tributes to theatrical icons, and new work from powerhouse voices of the 21st century.

The 2022-23 Mainstage Season kicks off in August with the highly anticipated House of Joy by Madhuri Shekar – an action-packed fantasy filled with romance and lots of girl power. In late-September, journey down the 1930s French Riviera in Noël Coward’s Private Lives, a scathing sendup of the British upper class. Just in time for the holidays, The Rep rings in the spirit of the season with the second annual production of the magical wintery wonderland of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol adapted by Michael Wilson.

Heading into the new year, The Rep lights up the stage with Steven Sondheim’s, Putting It Together: A Musical Review, featuring many of the legend’s most unforgettable masterpieces. Then stay tuned for Confederates, a time-bending drama fresh off its New York debut from MacArthur Genius Award-Winning Playwright Dominique Morisseau and produced in association with Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Closing out the Mainstage is the timeless Agatha Christie classic, Murder on the Orient Express, adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig.

Spring 2023 will mark the long-awaited return of the beloved Steve Woolf Studio Series, adventurous theatre for adventurous theatregoers — a provocative and memorable black box experience at the new state-of-the-art Strauss Black Box Theatre in Kirkwood Performing Arts Center (KPAC). Show announcement to come in May. 

“I look forward to inviting new and old friends to our theatre homes to share in the beauty and magic of the wonderful productions that will light up our stages next season,” said Sharif. “As I programmed the 2022-23 season I was inspired by the blossoming life of spring. From our reinvestment in the arts to the renewal of our commitment to the St. Louis community; my goal was to provide an array of productions that align with our mission of sharing entertaining and thought-provoking world-class art.”

“I am immensely excited to be at the helm of The Rep for my first full season with such a thrilling lineup of shows,” added Williams. “It’s been a true joy to watch this season come together and we can’t wait to share with everyone St. Louis.”

New for the 2022-2023 season, The Rep is offering several tiered subscription pass options, available now (prices vary by section). These exclusive subscription passes offer audiences the opportunity to find the perfect subscription for them. Subscription options:

●      Classic Subscription Pass: Get your tickets for all 5 Mainstage shows, plus your choice of our Holiday or Steve Woolf Studio offerings. Lock in your preferred seats and dates for the entire season when you order. And if your plans change, enjoy no-fuss exchanges.

●      Flex Subscription Pass: Get six passes to use for the best available seats to the shows you want most on the dates that fit your schedule, redeemable any time during the season.

●      Insider Preview Subscription Pass: Be the first to see the show and get a great deal! Just like the Classic Pass, you’ll get tickets for the 5 Mainstage performances, plus your choice of either our Holiday or Steve Woolf Studio offerings. By attending Insider Preview Weekends (the first Friday-Sunday of each show’s run), you get priority access to the best seats in the theatre and save substantially on your subscription.

Mainstage shows will take place at the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts and the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA. The full schedule for the 2022-2023 Season is as follows:

●      House of Joy: August 26 – September 18, Loretto-Hilton Center

At first glance, The House of Joy is a dazzling utopia; but when a new guard joins the emperor’s army, she discovers it’s more prison than paradise. This genre-busting adventure fantasy is filled with stunning locales, electrifying combat, steamy romance and badass girl power.

●      Private Lives: September 30 – October 23, Catherine B. Berges Theatre

Amanda and Elyot are enjoying a romantic honeymoon – just not with each other. A chance meeting on their adjoined hotel balconies brings this divorced duo face-to-face for the first time in five years. Passions and tempers collide in this combustible romp, as the two remember why they fell in love and why they divorced in the first place.

●      A Christmas Carol: November 18 – December 30, Loretto-Hilton Center

The Rep rings in the spirit of the season with the second annual production of this holiday classic. At long last, the ghosts of Ebenezer Scrooge’s past, present and future have caught up with him. Now London’s most infamous miser must face down his demons, reconcile the consequences of his choices and experience the power and joy of a miraculous redemption.

●      Putting it Together: A Musical Review: January 27 – February 19, Catherine B. Berges Theatre

Celebrate legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim by revisiting nearly 30 of the most poignant, powerful and witty songs in the American musical theatre canon. This beautiful, funny and emotionally charged musical review exposes the complicated relationships and deepest desires of two couples out for an elegant evening. 

●      Confederates: February 10 – March 5, Loretto-Hilton Center

An enslaved rebel turned Union spy and a tenured professor in a modern-day private university are having parallel experiences of institutionalized racism, despite existing more than a century apart. Dominique Morisseau brilliantly bends the continuum of time and weaves together the stark realities of racial and gender bias both women face in this illuminating drama.

Confederates is being produced in association with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

●      Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express: March 17 – April 16, Loretto-Hilton Center

It’s 1934, just after midnight, and a snowstorm has stopped the opulent Orient Express sleeper train in its tracks. A wealthy American businessman is discovered dead, and the brilliant and beautifully mustachioed Hercule Poirot must solve the mystery before the murderer strikes again. Agatha Christie’s plot-twisting masterpiece takes audiences on a suspenseful thrill ride.

Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals on behalf of Samuel French, Inc. www.concordtheatricals.com

●      Steve Woolf Studio Series: Spring 2023Strauss Black Box Theatre in Kirkwood Performing Arts Center (KPAC)

Adventurous theatre for adventurous theatregoers — a provocative and memorable black box experience at the new state-of-the-art . Show announcement to come in May.

For more information and to purchase, visit repstl.org or call the Box Office at (314) 968-4925. The Rep Box Office at the Loretto-Hilton Center will be open Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10:30 AM – 5:00 PM.

About The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is the St. Louis region’s most honored live professional theatre company. Founded in 1966, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is a fully professional theatrical operation belonging to the League of Resident Theatres, The League of St. Louis Theatres and is a constituent member of Theatre Communications Group, Inc., the national service organization for the not-for-profit professional theatre. Visit www.repstl.org for more, and find The Rep on FacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.

New season includes world premieres of ‘Dreaming Zenzile’ and ‘The Gradient,’ plus ‘The Trinity River Plays,’ an original work by Rep playwright-in-residence Regina Taylor 

 The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (The Rep) is pleased to announce its 2021-2022 Season, featuring two world premieres. The season kicks off September 10 with the world premiere production of ‘Dreaming Zenzile,’ a musical about the South African songstress Miriam Makeba, written and performed by Grammy-nominated international music sensation Somi Kakoma.

‘Dreaming Zenzile’ will be followed by the world premiere of Steph Del Rosso’s ‘The Gradient,’ a satire set in the not-so-distant future in which a new facility promises to take men accused of sexual misconduct and rehabilitate them into responsible citizens. The Charles Dickens’ classic ‘A Christmas Carol’ will become a new holiday tradition under the direction of Hana S. Sharif, Augustin Family Artistic Director at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. The second half of the season will feature ‘The 39 Steps,’ a farce written by Patrick Barlow adapted from the novel by John Buchan and the Alfred Hitchcock film; ‘The Trinity River Plays,’ a trilogy exploring one woman’s life journey by The Rep’s playwright-in-residence, Regina Taylor; and ‘House of Joy,’ an action-adventure romance by Madhuri Shekar.

The full schedule for the 2021-2022 Season is as follows:

  • Dreaming Zenzile: September 10 – October 3, Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts
  • The Gradient: October 1 – October 24, Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA
  • A Christmas Carol: December 3 – 23, Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts
  • The 39 Steps: January 21 – February 13, Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts
  • The Trinity River Plays: February 11 – March 6, Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA 
  • House of Joy: March 18 – April 10, Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts

“We are excited to be returning to the stage for a new season of live theatre featuring the work of thought-leading playwrights including our own playwright-in-residence, Regina Taylor,” said Hana S. Sharif, Augustin Family Artistic Director at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. “We know our audiences have been eager to return to the theatre and we’re delighted this compelling season offers something for everyone to enjoy.”

Subscriptions for The Rep’s 2021-2022 season are available now, and single tickets go on sale August 2. For more information and to purchase, visit repstl.org

Hana S. Sharif

About The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is the St. Louis region’s most honored live professional theatre company. Founded in 1966, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is a fully professional theatrical operation belonging to the League of Resident Theatres, The League of St. Louis Theatres and is a constituent member of Theatre Communications Group, Inc., the national service organization for the not-for-profit professional theatre. Visit www.repstl.org for more, and find The Rep on FacebookTwitterInstagram and YouTube.