New at Canadian Stage: When Arranged Marriage and Feminism Collide

The cast of NEW at Canadian Stage in collaboration with Necessary Angel Theatre Company 2023, photo Dahlia Katz
The cast of NEW at Canadian Stage in collaboration with Necessary Angel Theatre Company 2023, photo Dahlia Katz

Let’s take Harry Potter‘s Time-Turner back to 1970s Winnipeg, an era of ugly orange-and-brown home furnishings, allergy-inducing broadloom and psychedelic rock. Oh, and the plaid slacks…how could I forget the plaid! A time when books by feminist writers such as Germaine Greer found their way on to living room coffee tables. This is the setting for playwright Pamela Mala Sinha’s New, which recently opened at Canadian Stage‘s Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto in collaboration with Necessary Angel Theatre Company and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

The cast of NEW at Canadian Stage in collaboration with Necessary Angel Theatre Company 2023, photo Dahlia Katz
The cast of NEW at Canadian Stage in collaboration with Necessary Angel Theatre Company 2023, photo Dahlia Katz

Inspired by her parents’ arrival in Canada, Sinha (who also stars in the play) creates a story that examines the challenges that South Asian immigrants face when integrating into Western society. Directed by Alan Dilworth, the narrative focuses on Hindu bride Nuzha as she arrives in the home of her arranged-marriage husband Qasim only to find that he is reluctant to pursue their relationship. Qasim agreed to the marriage only due to fierce coercion by his mother.

Qasim introduces Nuzha to his friends: Sachin and his wife Sita (played by Sinha); Ash and his wife Aisha. Both couples appear to be happy on the surface, yet have underlying issues that restrict their relationships from moving forward. All the women are affected by the burgeoning feminist movement, which is urging women to focus more on self-fulfillment – and that does not necessarily include motherhood. In addition to experiencing the second wave of feminism, these couples perform a balancing act of cultures. For example, they maintain South Asian customs such as participating in the ceremonial puja while drinking Scotch and listening to Jim Morrison on the record player.

We quickly see first hand the challenges Nuzha faces. With an unsupportive husband, the young bride is so obviously bored in her new role that the highlight of her day is relocating a floor lamp for better lighting.

The arranged marriage trope never fails to offer mystery to Northern American audiences. How can one marry someone s/he doesn’t really know or worse, love? Sinha’s work attempts to expand our understanding of South Asian culture – although perhaps more could have been said about the tradition of arranged marriages – and it certainly successfully highlights the difficulties of adapting to a new culture.

The notable performances include Mirabella Sundar Singh as Nuzha, who charmingly captures the young bride’s shyness and innocence, particularly when wrapping herself up in her sari on the bed as if she is a gift to her husband – as well as her increasing confidence. Her tentative grasp of Western culture is revealed when she naively asks about spotty weekend bus schedules: “They drive slower on weekends?” Alicia Johnston is also strong yet convincingly vulnerable in her role as Abby, the white girlfriend of one of the men.

One small issue is the difficulty I had at times hearing some of the actors’ lines when they are speaking to one another.

Lorenzo Savoini’s efficient set encompasses three rooms: a kitchen, living room, and bedroom, which are sequentially used as each couple’s home. Costume Designer Michelle Bohn effectively underscores the blending of cultures with loud-printed shirts, Kurtas, knee-high boots and leather jackets.

Although there are generally good performances from the whole cast and certainly the dialogue is not extraneous, there seems to be a problem with tempo. There is a desire to linger too long in between dialogue in order for the message to resonate. This lagging pace removed some of the dynamism of what should have been a play with more impact. Nevertheless, the play’s intriguing theme and solid story line are enough to hold one’s attention.

In the notes, the playwright states that her motivation for writing the play was to depict South Asian immigrants to Canada as participating members of society who are often considered “new” to the country, but in fact have lived in and helped build foundations in their adoptive country for many years. This sentiment bears repeating…again and again.

New at Canadian Stage Berkeley Street Theatre is being performed until May 14, 2023. The run time is approximately 2 hours and 25 minutes with one intermission.

Berkeley Street Theatre is located at 26 Berkeley Street. Tickets are $55, $46, $29. Purchase tickets online or at the Box Office.

You may be interested in reading “Canadian Stage’s Fairview at Berkeley Street Theatre: REVIEW“.