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House of Joy
by Madhuri Shekar
Directed by Lavina Jadhwani
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 2, 2022

Omer Abbas Salem (Center) and Cast of House of Joy
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is opening its new season with an ambitious new play. House of Joy blends elements of drama, action, romance, and fantasy, with a little humor thrown in for good measure. A lushly appointed period piece set during South Asia’s historic Mughal Empire, this is a fast-moving, emotionally compelling and visually and technically dazzling production, although the plot could use some streamlining and a little more focus. 

The House of Joy of the title is the harem of an unnamed and unseen Emperor. The women of the royal household live here. The rules are that the women can’t leave and men (with exception of the Emperor) can’t enter, but the house’s steward, Salima (Omer Abbas Salem), who describes themself as “both” woman and man, can come and go as they please, and often serves as a source of information about the outside world for the women in the house, especially Princess Noorah (Aila Ayilam Peck), the ambitious daughter of the Emperor and the late Empress. The story’s main focus is essentially on Roshni (Tina Muñoz Pandya), who is fleeing the city after a violent altercation, and is recruited by Salima to fill a vacancy in the harem’s guard unit. Offered some safety and stability, Roshni agrees, and is trained by the guards’ captain, Gulal (Miriam A. Laube) along with other “junior cadets” including the outgoing and determined Hamida (Sumi Yu), who quickly becomes Roshni’s closest friend. Then, the action shifts to a year later, as the newest Queen, Mariyam (Emily Marso) is expecting a baby, who almost everyone is assuming will be the much-desired male heir to the throne. Mariyam, who is still not accustomed to royal life, is hoping for a girl, although she tries to keep that fact to herself, eventually sharing it with Roshni when the two finally meet under initially tense circumstances, and they quickly form a bond that seems to be aided in part by the house itself, which appears on many occasions to have a mind of its own. There’s also political intrigue in the form of Noorah, who has been doing much of the work in running the Empire behind the scenes,  and who harbors resentments toward her father and the new queen, as well as the societal expectations that keep her role in government hidden to the outside world. She sets in motion a plot that drives much of the action, especially in the second act, and loyalties are called into question, as the Empire, the guards, the royal household, and the house itself figure in the unfolding drama as tensions lead to their breaking point.

There’s a lot going on here, and my summary isn’t adequate in describing everything, as is expected since a play is best seen rather than merely described. There’s a degree of “unfolding mystery” here that’s especially intriguing, and some truly compelling characters and situations, but also there seem to be a few too many plots and subplots, and concepts that are brought up but not adequately fleshed-out. Especially as the political plot ramps up in the second act, the story becomes harder to follow, leading up to a somewhat open-ended conclusion that I’m sure is deliberate, but seems overly abrupt. The tone also shifts a bit too much at times, with moments of whimsical, more contemporary-seeming comedy blended with intense drama in ways that come across as jarring at times. It’s also one of those increasingly common period pieces that has the characters speaking in more modern-day language and speech rhythms, which I personally like sometimes and can find jarring at other times, depending on the play, movie, TV show, etc. Here, it mostly works, but there are moments when it can distract a little from the story. 

From a visual and technical standpoint, and in terms of pacing and staging, this show is a stunner. The action moments are truly thrilling, with excellent fight direction by Gaby Labotka, who also serves as the show’s intimacy director. Dahlia Al-Habieli’s detailed set serves as an ideal setting for this story, along with Stefania Bulbarella’s strikingly effective projection design. The set, projections, and the expertly crafted sound design by Pornchanok (Nok) Kanchanabanca work together well to bring this world, and the House of Joy itself, to life in a vibrant way that helps make the setting a character in itself. There are also marvelously detailed costumes by Oona Natesan and evocative choreography by Aparna Kalvanaraman that work well to immerse the show and the audience in the unique world of the play.

The cast is also strong, led by Pandya in a likable, determined performance as Roshni. There are also memorable turns from Salem, who exudes stage presence as Salima; Laube, as the tough but caring Gulal; Marso as the conflicted Mariyam, whose scenes with Pandya are especially convincing; and Peck as the scheming, determined Noorah, who is essentially a “villain”, but Peck’s performance makes her situation credible. The biggest standout, to my mind, is Yu as Hamida, who starts out as something of a comic “best friend” character but goes on a convincing emotional journey through the course of the show, and her friendship with Pandya’s Roshni is thoroughly believable. There’s strong ensemble chemistry all around, and the actors manage to hold attention even as the plot elements get a little confusing at times.

Overall, House of Joy is an entertaining debut for the Rep’s 2022-2023 season. It’s full of intrigue, drama, romance, and humor, even if sometimes the plot can get a little cluttered. It’s still a stunningly realized work, especially in the visual and technical areas, with a strong cast and compelling subject matter. It’s a promising work that could use a little bit of editing, but for now, what’s on stage at the Rep is a compelling, well-cast story that’s worth seeing for the spectacle and memorable cast. 

Emily Marso, Aila Ayilam Peck
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting House of Joy until September 8, 2022

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