Sultans of the Street's story of beggars infuses harsh reality with hope

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      By Anusree Roy. Directed by Marcus Youssef. Produced by Carousel Theatre for Young People in association with Diwali Fest. At the Waterfront Theatre on Sunday, October 30. Continues until November 13

      There’s a lot to admire in Sultans of the Street, an ambitious collaboration between Carousel Theatre and Diwali Fest. Kids need plays that deal with tough subjects, and it’s refreshing to see cultural diversity on-stage instead of just in the audience. But that audience is savvier than this show lets them be.

      Anusree Roy’s script follows two pairs of siblings in Kolkata. Through the eyes of privileged brothers Prakash and Ojha, we meet Mala and her younger brother Chun Chun, orphans who dress up as gods and beg for money on the streets, giving most of their money to Aunty, who soon blackmails Prakash and Ojha into working for her as well. Aunty’s slippery hypocrisy (“Not beggars, earners,” she corrects) is a microcosm of exploitive capitalism; we see its seductions when the first rupee to land in the brothers’ begging bowl inspires a victory dance and dreams of opening their own shop. But Mala and Chun Chun are working toward a less fanciful goal: they long simply to go to school.

      For a play with such high stakes, the action often feels surprisingly flat. One culprit is Roy’s dialogue, which is either expository, filling us in on action that has happened elsewhere, or on the nose: everyone always says exactly what’s on their mind, often more than once. A scene in which a street vendor lectures the brothers on choosing their food clobbers us over the head with its metaphor.

      Under Marcus Youssef’s direction, the actors do their best with largely one-dimensional characters. Nadeem Phillip’s Prakash is courageously principled, an anchor to Parmiss Sehat’s reckless Ojha, and Amitai Marmorstein radiates youthful hope as Chun Chun. Carmela Sison plays Mala, the most nuanced character; she’s fiercely protective of her turf but tender with her brother, hard-nosed but willfully self-deceiving. Nimet Kanji plays all of the adult characters, including the intimidating Aunty.

      Tim Matheson

      The design is strong: Farnaz Khaki-Sadigh’s colourful costumes pop amid the urban detritus littering Amir Ofek’s wide-open set, and lighting designer Adrian Muir creates a beautiful moment when the children’s imaginations transcend their bleak circumstances.

      That hope can infuse the harsh reality that so many children inhabit is a powerful and important message, and Sultans of the Street invites us to reflect on injustice at home as well as in other countries. I just wish it didn’t underestimate its audience.