Saturday, January 21, 2017

Surrogacy as Satire

With its usual predilection for the avant-garde and the challenging, Single Carrot Theatre has opened its production of Samsara.  Written by the contemporary Asian-American playwright Lauren Yee, the play---or, rather, dramatic fantasy---studies a middle class couple's adventures in infertility and surrogate motherhood.  Through its wild humor, featuring a talking-and-dancing fetus and a Maurice Chevalier imitator, the play develops a pointed critique of our new, wilful way of reproduction and its exploitation of the poor women and the children they bear in their wombs for a price.

The relationship between the couple desiring to have a child, Craig (Paul Diem) and Kate (Alix Fenhagen), begins in farce but gradually becomes more serious as the strains in their marriage, their mixed motives for resorting to surrogacy, and their painful personal histories come to the fore.  Economics---and a dose of colonial imperialism---complicates the picture.  For reasons of cost, the couple decides to use an Indian woman as a surrogate mother in an inexpensive but reputedly safe clinic in India.  The clinic turns out to be anything but safe; the presiding physician oversees prenatal care and births on a not very sanitary assembly line.  The surrogate mother Suraiya (Saraniya Tharmarajah) is not exactly a volunteer.  The money she receives from the surrogacy is necessary to fund her studies in medical school and fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor.  All these factors collide in producing the play's tragic outcome.

The fantasy figures deepen the plot.  In the night's strongest performance,  the fetus Amit (Utkarsh Rajawat) not only bonds with the mother bearing him; he wittily interacts with Suraiya as he questions what life beyond the womb might be like.  Calling his mother "Microwave," since she has been hired to give him warmth and nurture, Amit brings out the impossibility for the surrogate simply to act as the passive, indifferent partner in a business deal.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, Kate deals with her own fantasy partner, a mysterious Frenchman (Dustin C.T. Morris) who is a stand-in for the anonymous French donor of the sperm used to create the couple's developing child.  Full of music, champagne, and overly Frenched accents from the old MGM movies Gigi, Morris's exuberant performance boosts the farcical joy of the production but also reveals even further the odd cultural prejudices that have marked this misguided adventure in procreation.

For all its vibrancy and imagination, the play does not completely work.  The effort to portray culture shock as Craig experiences provincial India in a visit to the surrogate on the eve of birth is full of its own cultural cliches about India and East/West differences.  Diem's brilliant, dynamic performance as the husband who moves from culture shock to bewilderment to outrage does not quite overcome the cultural wallpaper.  Some of the advice offered by the surrogate mother to her bouncy fetus sounds like an after-school special.  The sudden happy ending as the quarreling couple is reconciled seems forced and abrupt.  One senses a fascinating and highly imaginative tragicomedy that could use further work along the path to becoming more incisive.

A great assist in the production is the support provided by the mobile setting (Jason Randolph), the shifting lighting (Thomas P. Gardner), and the witty sound design (Steven Kriegel), where classical Indian music crashes into "thousand strings" versions of the old MGM musicals.  The Carrots' signature drive and vitality are permanently on display.


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