Actors in House of Joy
The Warriors: Hamid (Emma Van Lare) and Roshni (Sanga Tajima) in House of Joy. Photo: Kevin Berne

Cal Shakes’ world premiere of House of Joy, by emerging playwright Madhuri Shekar, is a dramatically staged and spectacularly costumed action-adventure romance set in a harem during the impending collapse of the storied 17th-century Mughal Indian Empire. For over 200 years, this empire reigned over virtually the entire Indian subcontinent as far west as Afghanistan.

The creative concept of House of Joy explores the lives of the women of the empire — from those subjugated in the harem, to the brave female warrior/slaves who guard the harem, to the autocratic members of the imperial family whose internecine rivalries hasten their own downfall.

Yet, with agile direction by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, a first-rate cast, and all the staging, lighting, costumes, fight scenes, and other details perfectly wrought, the House of Joy would benefit from more significant character development and suspense to help the audience care more about the protagonists and worry about their choices and futures.

The plot of the striking two-act, two-hour production centers around two outsiders to the Mughal Empire who were taken from their home country as children and forced to serve the unseen Emperor. Hamida (excellent Emma Van Lare) is the most skilled bodyguard of the harem. Hamida’s extravagantly dressed, golden finger-nailed and eye-lashed eunuch brother Salima (outstanding Rotimi Agbabiaka), is now a favored advisor to Noorah (first-rate Lipica Shah), the ambitious, cunning daughter of the Emperor. Although the males in the imperial family are battling for power off-stage, we bet that it is Noorah who will win the day.

Hamida’s friend and co-warrior is Roshni (effervescent Sango Tajima). Their highly-skilled fights with swords and bamboo sticks (fight choreographer Dave Maier) are based on traditional Indian styles of martial arts. And there are many, many fight scenes.

Despite Hamida’s strength and martial skills, she is sympathetic to the young chief queen, Maryam (Rinabeth Apostol), who is often beaten by the Emperor and wants to escape from his clutches. Hamida’s love interest, Doctor Thermometer (very nicely played by Raji Ahsan), is a gentle soul, but with a resolute sense of self.

It is only through Thermometer that the audience learns that the empire is suffering from famine and other ills while the imperial family enjoys an extravagant lifestyle. Their lavishness is exemplified by their gorgeous, over-the-top glimmering costumes and luxurious headdresses by Costume Designer Oana Botez.

House of Joy is part of Cal Shakes’ New Classics Initiative, which “develops new works by playwrights who, while diverse in perspective and experience, share Shakespeare’s vision of the power of story.” And House of Joy fits this definition well. It centers on diverse women’s struggles in South Asia, yet, has familiar elements of Shakespearean tragedies — ambitious royal power struggles in faraway lands with swashbuckling bravery and heroics. However, the power of story could use a boost by heightening the dramatic tension. That said, House of Joy is an elaborate, enjoyable evening under the stars.

House of Joy is playing at the outdoor California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda through Sept. 8, 2019. Cal Shakes advises the audience to dress warmly in layers since the temperature may dip down during evening performances. Blankets and hand-warmers are available for a donation. The complimentary shuttle from Orinda BART begins two hours before curtain. Tickets: $20-$94, with discounts for seniors, youth, students, military families, persons age 30 and under, and groups (subject to change). For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Cal Shakes online or telephone 510-548-9666.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...