Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – It’s par for the course for stand-up comedians: riff on their ethnicity, share life experiences, morph into characters and generally work out the question, “Where do I fit in?,” in front of live audiences.
The best comedians are not only good for a laugh, but they leave an essential part of themselves in our consciousness. You could say the same for theatrical comedy, and that’s where “Brahman/I” makes its entrance.
The Quantum Theatre presentation — at a “Q pop-up club” called Temple of Comedy at the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation’s Community Center — fuses what’s considered routine in stand-up comedy with theater as the first of a trilogy of plays by Aditi Brennan Kapil in which a comic at a mike explores his or her Indian heritage, with a twist. The “hijra” of the subtitle — “A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show” — is recognized in India as a person who identifies as neither man or woman.
With topics including Hindu gods and awkward adolescence, the inclination of director Shishir Kurup is to lean hard toward the stand-up nature of the piece, even though “this is a stand-up routine until it isn’t, and it’s indicated in the script where it isn’t.”
With Sanjiv Jhaveri as the man at the mike and musician and Point Park alum Dave Bielewicz as his sidekick (think bandleader Paul Schaffer as a foil for David Letterman), “Brahman/I” comes with another prime directive, one that Mr. Kurup takes seriously: “Don’t lose the funny.”
“The comic will always go for the joke, even if it means jumping off a cliff. If it makes someone laugh as they splat onto the pavement below, it’s worth it to have died in the cause of going for the perfect joke. And that’s kind of what we viewed as our maxim,” said Mr. Kurup, a playwright and director and an actor with a long list of TV credits. He was seen most recently in “True Blood’s” final season as Guru Sanbir Dutta.
In 2011, Mr. Kurup came to the University of Pittsburgh at the invitation of Pitt and Quantum Theatre’s Karla Boos, who knew the actor/director from her West Coast acting days. The visit was for a staged reading of his play “Merchant on Venice” — a Shakespeare spinoff set around L.A.’s Venice Boulevard, with a South Asian perspective — and to speak about his anthology “Beyond Bollywood and Broadway, Plays from the South Asian Diaspora.”
He brought with him the New York-based actor Jhaveri, and that gathering is where the seeds of the “Brahman/I” team were sown.
“He plays the clown, he plays the judge, he plays many things in my play,” Mr. Kurup said. “He is delightful, and Karla felt that, too.”
The actor worked for two months before coming to Pittsburgh, to get accustomed to a script of more than 60 pages and multiple characters before layering it with performance. The director refers often to the “high wire” nature of performing comedy, and “Brahman/I” demands layers beyond the routine of stand-up. Even then, he likens the play to Richard Pryor going from the early days of riotous stand-up to his darker material — he mentions Mr. Pryor’s drug-addicted character of Cool Breeze, who died standing up, and no one noticed.
“In a way we are trying to make it more of a stand-up comedy, otherwise it turns into a solo performance or a monologue,” Mr. Kurup said. “I think I go to stand-up comedy because of the high-wire act of it, especially those stream-of-conscious, improvisational comedians like Eddie Izzard and of course Robin Williams.”
For “Brahman/I,” Quantum is creating a comedy club atmosphere, with the hope that audiences will come to laugh — and come away with something more…