Edge Theatre makes a smart move with Gifted
Yasser Elmkhanter and Rehka Ohal in the Edge Theatre’s Gifted.
Gifted is in many ways a standard family drama, complete with child-parent misunderstandings, sibling squabbles and the perpetual battle between wife and mother-in-law. But the interest level is decisively heightened by the fact that this is a mixed-race family — and we all know the fascinating stuff that happens when cultures overlap. Any part-immigrant family will recognize certain enduring themes: American-born children unable to fully comprehend the cultures that shaped their parents, struggling with driven, perfectionist and ambitious mothers (or, in this case, a grandmother), and discouraged from choosing their own careers or dating as they please.
Not many Denver theaters are willing to take the risk of staging work by local writers, but Edge Theatre artistic director Rick Yaconis considers this part of his mission: "We want to be known as a theater that embraces and promotes new work," he says. Gifted was selected through a competition held by the company last year; this is author Carrie Printz's first full production. "It's wonderful," Printz says. "Very exciting. Actors can add such a dimension to your writing. Writing a play is such a collaborative process. The director and actors all contribute; they're all trying to improve your work or make it come to life. It's been a great learning process."
There's a further complication to Printz's script. Not only are protagonist Aseem and his big sister Anjali the children of an Indian father — now dead — and a still-grieving white American mother, but Aseem is a genius, a whiz kid who also happens to excel at sports. So naturally, Jake, a television producer, soon comes calling. He's working up a reality show called Stump the Brainiacs in which kids like Aseem compete with regular students. Aseem is intrigued; Mom Barbara is not so sure. Anjali, a medical student, hates everything about reality television and sees Jake's concept as sleazy exploitation. As if all this weren't enough, here comes Deepa, the kids' very traditional grandmother, who's been living in London and has many criticisms of the way they're being brought up. Why hasn't Anjali's marriage been arranged for her yet? Why doesn't Aseem come with her to London and enroll in a prestigious school where he can mingle with the children of Indian diplomats? And when will daughter-in-law Barbara learn to appreciate the flavors of true Indian food?
The situation is intriguing, and overall the play works well, though some plot points are less successful than others. Particularly in the first act, it sometimes feels like the characters are repeating the same arguments again and again. Then there's Anjali's decision to abandon medical school and enter another field requiring years of study: We know Barbara's a psychologist, but is this family really well off enough to pay for all this education? Anjali's change of direction is one unconvincing moment; another occurs with Jake's revelation that at heart he's smart and sensitive — perhaps even worthy of Anjali. Things do rev up quite a bit in the second act, and there are funny bits throughout, like Aseem showing his old-fashioned grandmother how to text, and the family's later discovery that she's used her new skills in unexpected ways.
While it's a pleasure to see actors of varying ethnicity on a Denver stage, it's also hard to find Indian actors here. As a result, some of the performers in Gifted are relatively inexperienced. Aseem, who reveals himself in a series of monologues addressed to the audience, comes across as cheeky, funny and wistful, a mix of incisive observer and stubborn kid; at school, he tells us, he gets teased about being brainy and is sometimes called "the Terrorist" for his mixed blood. He's played with a certain self-deprecating charm by Yasser Elmkhanter. Carolyn Demanelis brings a poised, calm dignity to the role of Anjali, and Ethan Yazzie-Mintz is self-possessed as genial Jake. Rehka Ohal's performance as Deepa is a little constrained but hints periodically at sly and interesting unvoiced thoughts.
For local writers and the overall health of area theater, Gifted represents a strong step forward; for audiences, it's an entertaining and thought-provoking holiday evening. "We're so proud of Carrie for sticking through the entire process," says Yaconis, who has already gone through some of the winnowing for next year's competition. Printz herself is at work on her next script — a comedy about a group of midlife women.
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