Madhuri Shekar’s House of Joy isn’t exactly an inversion of Shakespeare’s King Lear, nor is it a revision of Hamlet. But those three plays all share one main plot point, “Who will inherit the kingdom?” As the playwright gives shape to her tale of succession, the monarch never appears on stage. When Mariyam (Rinabeth Apostol) the chief queen — one of the emperor’s many wives — attempts to escape from the palace, we know that something is rotten in 17th-century Delhi.
The story’s sense of urgency is informed by, but doesn’t stem from, the characters’ psychological motivations. Shekar is less concerned with their personal odysseys (nobody asks anything like, “To be or not to be?”). Instead, she reimagines an empire in which women have primacy. Where, against unfavorable, patriarchal odds, they’ll be the ones to decide who qualifies as a rightful heir to the throne.
The House of Joy is a walled Garden of Eden that Mariyam lives in with her infant son and her stepdaughter Noorah (Lipica Shah). Inside, there’s a harem at the emperor’s disposal, plus every other kind of imaginable earthly delight (Oana Botez’s sumptuous costume designs embody the glittering riches of the empire). While outside, the common people are suffering through a famine. The most feral of Noorah’s brothers has decamped for the hinterlands in order to foment a rebellion against their father. But we don’t meet him either. The only warriors on hand are two of the palace’s bodyguards, Hamida (Emma Van Lare) and Roshni (Sango Tajima), and their captain Gulal (Nandita Shenoy).
Shekar takes a Downton Abbey-like approach to the narrative structure. She dramatizes the lives of the royal household in addition to their bodyguards and Salima (Rotimi Agbabiaka), a eunuch who’s Noorah’s closest adviser. But the protagonists with the most clearly defined wishes or goals are Hamida, Mariyam and Noorah. At the beginning of the play, it looks unlikely that the three women could ever forge an alliance. Noorah appears to be maintaining the status quo in her father’s palace. When Mariyam appears in the courtyard garden one morning with a black eye, she doubts that her stepdaughter will take her side. It’s Hamida who’s first to break protocol. On duty the night before, she overheard the emperor beating Mariyam. Hamida wants to help the queen make a second, successful escape from her abuser.
The symbolism of an inhumane despot — one who embodies the psychosis of the country he governs — doesn’t run deep here. And it’s not meant to. Shekar delivers her message about overthrowing the patriarchy, in part, by appropriating tropes from typically male action and buddy comedies. Hamida and Roshni banter back and forth about sex and desire. They’re rival warriors who just happen to be best friends. As Noorah and Salima, Shah and Agbabiaka, respectively, pour boiling acid on their line readings. They scheme and pose and wave their arms about in the air, sisters in arms with Disney divas like Maleficent and Ursula. House of Joy cruises along with crowd-pleasing sword fights, ribaldry and soapy subplots but the fun doesn’t undermine the playwright’s more serious messaging.
Hamida’s professional ambitions outweigh her romantic interest in the emperor’s doctor Thermometer Iyengar, or Meter for short (Raji Ahsan, whose diction is so remarkably lucid it qualifies as pellucid). She respects and admires the experience her superior officer Gulal brings to the job but also questions her orders instead of blindly following them. When both her and Noorah’s backstories are revealed, their joining in solidarity with Mariyam makes sense. Hamida and Salima arrived on the same ship as child slaves in Delhi. Even though they’ve done well for themselves, they’re still outsiders. The real wild card though is Noorah.
Her sadistic father had her beloved mother killed by hanging — with one particularly grim caveat. He ordered his daughter to be the executioner. In her own way, Princess Noorah has suffered as much as Mariyam and Hamida have. But when these wayward sisters team up, they’ll hold the emperor’s fate in their vengeful hands.
House of Joy, through Sept. 8, at California Shakespeare Theater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, $20-$102; 510-548-9666 or calshakes.org