You’ve never seen Hindu gods like this.
Brahma the creator appears as a stand-up comedian working through gender-assignment issues on stage. Vishnu the protector appears as a tough-girl avatar named Kalki, who saves a couple of outcasts from the dangers of high school. And Shiva the destroyer sails her mattress on a “cosmic ocean” while trying to navigate post-colonial identity and post-concert T-shirt sales.
The styles are comedy, high school noir, and magical realism. But the struggle for self-definition is always at the heart of Aditi Brennan Kapil’s “Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy.” Company One Theatre is giving the trilogy its New England premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatres through Nov. 22.
“I set out to find my way into the Indian side of my heritage by writing, which is what I do,” Kapil says. “I’m several times an immigrant, really. So I took these deities and I stuck them into these immigrant bodies in the west, and I just kind of wanted to see what would happen.”
The playwright’s own story is a multicultural epic. Her father was born in a rural village in India and rebelled by becoming a modernist poet and moving to New Delhi. He accepted an invitation to study and teach in communist Bulgaria, where he met Kapil’s mother, who grew up in a family of Orthodox priests. A few years after Kapil was born, they emigrated to Sweden, where she became a punk rocker. She moved to the United States for college.
“I pretty much spent my entire life not being able to get into any club whatsoever — ever! — or to fit in or be categorized or not fall out of the box I was put in,” she says.
Her “Love Person” hit stages in several states in 2007-08 as a “rolling world premiere” from the Nation New Play Network, and her “Agnes Under the Big Top” did the same in 2011-12. She has also written short plays and plays for young people, and has several commissions in the works.
The trilogy debuted a year ago at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, where Kapil lives. Individual parts are being produced in a number of cities, but Company One is only the second to tackle the whole thing.
“I thought there was something enormous about producing all three together, and it felt kind of impossible for our company to do that in one sitting,” says Company One artistic director Shawn LaCount. “That felt like a good reason to do it.”
That’s trademark bravado from Company One. But despite the very different styles of the three plays, LaCount says they all fit the troupe’s regular aesthetic: “A lot of themes that will feel familiar to Company One audiences, lots of different faces on the stage, lots of different experiences. And they’re all a little irreverent, or a lot irreverent depending on which play you’re seeing.”
“Brahman/i,” subtitled “A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show,” directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, stars Aila Peck as a Hijra, or what the script calls “an East Indian hermaphrodite/intersex person,” whose sexual identity changes over the course of a stand-up routine that’s as self-revealing as one of Richard Pryor’s concert movies — and maybe more. It will play the Plaza Black Box, which will be set up as a comedy club.
“The Chronicles of Kalki,” also directed by O’Gara, stars Stephanie Recio as Girl 1 and Ally Dawson as the mysterious hero Kalki in what Kapil calls a girl-gang thriller, set in a high school classroom, a convenience store, and a police interrogation room, among other places. It’s being staged in the Plaza Theatre, as is the magical “Shiv,” directed by Summer L. Williams and starring Payal Sharma as a young woman coming to grips with post-colonialism and her relationship to her poet father.
“There are absolutely traces of myself in all of these plays, but in no way is that character actually my father. Although, that said, I did sell T-shirts at a concert with my father once,” says Kapil, who laughs easily and often. “I almost treat it as a homage: Let me celebrate my dad for a moment, the particular peculiarity of his place in the world.”
As for “Kalki,” “I grew up on comic books and that was my escape. Imagining my outcast self as someday finding my superhero self? Totally a thing,” she says. “With ‘Brahman/i,’ I think that came from the fact that I spent my life so profoundly uncharacterizable, and at some point I just got so sick of caring that I wasn’t fitting in.”
Brahman/i was also the most difficult role in the trilogy to cast, requiring an actor who can play a character of Indian descent, shifting between male and female identification while doing stand-up comedy and slipping into other voices to get laughs.
Peck is the only actor in the cast without Boston ties, recruited in part because she understudied the role in a Chicago production earlier this year (but never went on). She says she’s “half-Indian and half-American salad, like Polish and everything,” and the play has been deeply important to her.
“Aditi’s writing is really something that I connect to a lot, mostly because of her voice for outcasts and Indians in America,” Peck says. “That onlooker in society that never quite feels part of, but is intrinsically ‘in’ a community, I really relate to that. The need when you’re in that role to be able to self-define, to let everything go and just be yourself.
“I had no problem coming to Boston and doing this play,” she added, cracking up, “because it’s hysterical.”
O’Gara directed Kapil’s “Love Person” for Company One in 2012, a challenging production that involved American Sign Language and Sanskrit as well as English. Though the playwright wasn’t heavily involved in the production, she “loved” the end result, and both sides say a connection was forged.
“When we originally started talking about working on the trilogy, I assumed they’d just pick one of the plays,” Kapil says. “I was like, How about this one? Or how about this one? But they decided to do all three in repertory, which is an astonishing gift.” The first two plays were truly finished, but “Shiv” got more work when Kapil came to town for a week earlier this year.
The shows don’t need to be seen in a particular order. “You don’t see repeating characters. What you see are like little Easter eggs, repeating motifs,” says Williams.
On the page, at least, each of the plays leaves room for interpretation. The gods seem in a way vehicles for characters’ real-world self-discovery.
“In ‘Kalki,’ this god who may or may not have drifted through these girls’ lives could also be interpreted as a runaway who appeared in a very, very real way,” O’Gara says. “I think that’s what’s really interesting about all three plays, it gives the audience a chance to question. What we’ve really been trying to do is create that mystery. I think everyone walking out of the theater may have different takes on all three plays.”Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.