Hidden in a Midpeninsula industrial-park office, the living room of three middle-aged Indian women is brought to life. It's a Saturday morning but, thanks to the magic of theater, the hot, rainy Mumbai night seeps through the set walls as the imaginary windows are thrust open and the TV buzzes. Aruna, Dolon and Subhadra bicker, drink, fantasize and joke, exploring themselves and their lives together over the course of one charged night.
These three are the protagonists of "Sonata," written by the Indian playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar and staged in Los Altos Hills by the Bay Area Drama Company (cheekily abbreviated BAD), a theater organization founded in 2014 that focuses on the Indian and Indian-American experiences and which holds its rehearsals in the afore-mentioned Belmont office.
"Sonata" is named after the "Moonlight Sonata," Beethoven's famous composition, which is featured in the play; it has been staged several times and translated into multiple languages, most recently adapted into a Bengali film in 2017.
Production on the local "Sonata" began in May, right after the company's last play "Kanyadaan" wrapped up. The process of putting together the play took three months, with rehearsals occurring four to five times a week until the premiere date this Friday.
The 70-minute show takes place in in the living room of the two main characters. Aruna and Dolon have resided in this apartment for years, first meeting as schoolmates and both choosing to be unmarried in a society that prioritizes the heterosexual union; Subhadra is living with an abusive partner about whom she remarks, "He hits me but I give it back to him." Together, they have long, winding discussions and revel in their times together. All have fully realized, successful careers Dolon is an executive banker at a multinational bank, Aruna is a university professor of Sanskrit and Subhadra is a journalist. The unconventional nature and female focus of the play's subject matter is what attracted BAD to the play.
"To stage something that doesn't move us would be impossible," producer Sindu Singh said.
The play exploits the uniqueness of the situation itself -- three women who discuss their lives freely, with no involvement from a male character. Subhadra spars with her partner, but ultimately they choose their lives based on their own needs and wants.
"There's a certain amount of choices that are foisted upon us," Singh said. "We have this conventional path, and if you choose to separate from the norm, the way society views it is very different from how society would view a man's choice."
For Singh, the characters are distinct in what they represent outside of the norm, but the play is meant to be interpreted by the viewer. It's a platform for issues such as love, sex, education, family and more that are open for audience members to engage with as they wish.
"In plays with very obvious themes, I feel like every creative piece of work is really a person's own set of life experiences," Singh said. "They take away different things, things we might not think they would take away."
Singh discussed how each character brings their own complexes and experiences to the play. Both Aruna and Dolon revel in the fantastical stories of modern life; Aruna is a disciplined scholar who secretly writes short fiction and compartmentalizes her emotions, while Dolon is open about her interests in "vices" like gossip and wine, collecting empty perfume bottles. Singh added that Dolon is a woman who "seeks validation from other people and wants to look a certain way, so why is she not confident in herself?"
"Sonata" does not answer that question for the viewer, which is the intention of the play; Aruna, Dolon and Subhadra are complex women with complex feelings, perhaps informed by the society around them and the men once or currently in their lives, but at the core of it their own people. In this space, they are allowed to be as flighty, as emotional, as in or out of love as they want to be.
The play has two casts alternating performance nights, with five different actors total. The first cast has Aruna played by Singh, Dolon played by Anju Prakash and Subhadra played by Sejal Desai. The second has Aruna played by Anindita Mukherjee, Dolon played by Rita Bhatia and Subhadra played by Singh. The first cast is more rife with the tension that characterizes Aruna and Dolon's relationship, while the second cast emphasizes the bond that keeps the three together. Palo Alto resident and BAD co-founder Basab Pradhan is the production's director.
According to Singh, the play is a narrative about many things -- the choice to be single, the act of unconditional love, the ability to laugh without boundaries, and, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, an exploration of what it means to be a woman who is unwilling to take nonsense.
Ultimately, the setting of modern India illuminates the play the most for those who are aware of recent incidents, including the 2012 tragedy in which a woman was gang-raped on a bus. Perhaps more discussions like these will strengthen the dialogue around creating a more inclusive society for women, Singh suggested.
"You still hear of the girl getting the short end, and there's still an inordinate amount of progress to be made," Singh said. "You have to keep the faith ... keep on doing what we are doing."
Where: Lohman Theatre at Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills.
When: Aug. 17-25; Check online for specific performance times.
Info: For tickets and information on "Sonata," go to BAD.
Ed's note -- The original story incorrectly identified the composer of the "Moonlight Sonata" as Bach, not Beethoven.