One can tell by the packed house in the Downstairs Theatre at Paradise Factory -- on a Monday evening, no less -- that Sitting Regal by the Window is one of Planet Connections Theatre Festivity’s great finds. The festival, dedicated to invoking the power of the arts to affect social change, just may have found a diamond in the rough.
The semi-autobiographical work by Aya Aziz details her adventures growing up as a half-Arab, half-Jewish girl in the changing neighborhoods of Manhattan. Aziz’s childhood is informed by a variety of characters, including her Jewish grandmother, Soviet and Greek neighbors, and a Puerto Rican babysitter. This gives Aziz plenty of impressions, accents, and jokes to explore the core theme of the performance: the creation of hybrid identities. While many stories about assimilation have been heard in many solo shows about the immigrant experience, Aziz’s raw energy and her deliberate invitation to the audience to participate in her story resonates.
Those for whom the immigrant experience may be a foreign one can relate to the way Aziz narrates the tragedy of getting older, of being confronted with uncomfortable truths and world’s cynicism. She is determined to protect herself from it, not to grow into someone "unfamiliar"; it sounds like a song we’ve all sung. It doesn’t hurt that most of Aziz’s compositions are irresistibly catchy and quite memorable. Whether it be “Ghetto-Hippie-Arab-Commie-China Doll”, which contrasts the multiple influences on Aziz’s identity, or “Chili Bar,” which recounts her experiences of working in a late-night chili joint, the music is what makes Sitting Regal by the Window so special. The songs serve as the binding thread of the play. This is no gimmick – this is the only way Aziz could have told her story.
As Aziz acknowledged before the play began, it is still a work in progress. Aziz’s story told in her original and authentic voice is powerful enough, so when the production veers into making overt political statements, with lyrics that refer to “oppression” and “equality,” it seems as if Aziz is trying hard to ‘say something.’ Though musicians Matt Chilton and Ben Zucker accompany Aziz impeccably through the songs, the sound design by Alex Kehr overuses live instruments to hint at every joke and innuendo. The lighting design by Matt Iker is inconsistent, with unnecessary cue changes that illuminate different parts of an efficient though slightly confounding set by Sparks Grassly. One is never quite sure what the window, hanging in the middle of the stage, represents.
The show will be performed at the upcoming New York International Fringe Festival and will surely continue to overcome the growing pains of a developing production. Yet all these technical faux pas don’t seem quite as important when you’re witnessing a real talent like Aziz. An audience member of her sold out show said it best – “she’s really something.”
The last showing of Sitting Regal by the Window at the Downstairs Theatre at Paradise Factory will be July 10 at 5 pm. The show will also be part of the 2015 New York International Fringe Festival (August 14-30).
The Planet Connections Theatre Festivity continues through July 12.