Tamasha O’ Tamasha

By Azal Dosanjh

Reviewed by Sharon Bala

To hear playwright and director Azal Dosanjh describe it, Tamasha O’ Tamasha—his first full length play—is a labour of love, born of community. This is a group collaboration involving dramaturgs, script consultants, cast, crew, and the crucial support of grants and co-producers. It takes a village and this one has produced a masterpiece. 

Dosanjh’s muse is the legendary Punjabi playwright Gursharan Singh Bhaji, who penned nearly 200 scripts. From these, Dosanjh chose and translated half a dozen short plays, then wrote original material to connect them into a single story. This is the sort of hugely ambitious endeavour that could easily have ended badly. But Dosanjh and his team pull it off with panache.

Go, a country bumpkin, leaves their village for the capital, on a quest to perform for the king. This is a Fool’s journey unlike any other, a frenetic romp of song and dance, political send up, and wall-to-wall gags. There is strobe lighting. There are pratfalls. There’s spicy language and saucy jokes. It is chaos. And it is perfectly coherent.

This is a testament to the crew whose imaginative costumes, set design, and soundscape bring the show together. The lighting is inspired in its subtle call back to Asian shadow plays. The direction is flawless.

The cast is superb with affecting dramatic turns from Zac Cross and Rouzbeh Mehr, hilarious physical comedy by Sarah Conway, Cheney Emberg, and Lonni Patey, and uproarious slapstick from Andrew Tremblett. In a weaker production, any one of them might have stolen the show. Instead, they riff and bounce off each other. It’s impossible not to have a great time when the cast is having this much fun.

The actors move freely through the audience, getting into their faces to ask questions or exchange props. This is of a piece with the play’s Indian roots, where everyone lives cheek-by-jowl and personal space is a privilege. Other South Asian inflections include the forty characters, gallows humour, and fatalism. But Dosanjh also borrows from elsewhere, including nods to Oz, Alice in Wonderland, flood myths, the minotaur, and Law and Order. This being political satire, he rips from headlines past and present, making the show timeless and timely.

Go traverses a kingdom in crisis. There’s nepotism and states of emergency. Power bills are skyrocketing due to an energy mega project. But good news! In forty years everyone will have a home! (Have you seen the federal housing plan?)

There is a new king who is also the old king and if this sounds like a jab at the interchangeability of NL’s Libs and Tories, keep in mind the joke could just as easily apply to Mexico. Or you could look to India which just gave the sitting Prime Minister a third term, albeit with unexpected results. The moment where the king arrives on stage with a silly hat and orange robes, and roars about nationalism, is one of those if you know, you know jokes that is farce on the surface and a sucker punch underneath.

Then there’s the showboat finance minister Bobby Rob. Dressed in silver and surrounded by yes men, he moonlights on stage at the Rock House, a biting send up of the entertainment-to-public-office pipeline.

Are his many portfolios a dig at the provincial government’s combined department of arts, tourism, sports, recreation, parks, and culture? Bobby Rob could just as easily be a play on Pakistan’s cricket star, turned (ex)prime minister, Imran Khan, famously dishy in his youth, whose career overlapped with that of Singh Bhaji. 

Often, I wondered where Bhaji’s work ended and Dosanjh’s began. This blurring of lines between the two playwrights, between the real and the theatrical, are at the heart of the production’s genius. If Tamasha O’ Tamasha is absurdist, it is only because real life is even more ludicrous.

Tamasha O’ Tamasha is playing at the LSPU Hall until Sunday, June 9th. There are two pick-your-price shows, options for a relaxed performance, live audio description, and a live stream. Plus: a happy hour and talk back after Friday night’s curtain. Get your tickets. Get them now.

Sharon Bala’s best-selling debut novel, The Boat People, won the 2020 Newfoundland & Labrador Book Award and the 2019 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, was short listed for several awards, and is in translation in four languages. Sharon is a member of The Port Authority writing group.