The Orange Tree Theater is creating a series of plays with an international vocation with Actors Touring Company (ATC). Rice, their new co-production, fits the bill perfectly. Written by Asian-Australian playwright Michele Lee, it takes place in a large Australian agricultural company and is about Indian leader Nisha – “made in Melbourne” but still close to her West Bengali grandmother – and Chinese cleaner and entrepreneur. missed Yvette. Nisha and Yvette’s lives overlap under the harsh glow of office lights as they work endless night shifts and struggle to be heard above the constant chatter of powerful men.
Clad in a power suit but her eyes lit with anxiety, Nisha (Zainab Hasan) prowls the crisp white office, uncomfortable in the space she is so eager to make her own. Yvette (Sarah Lam) is a much calmer presence. She mostly hovers around the edges of the stage but looks safe and solid in the series of small spaces she occupies.
As the nights go by, we learn more about Yvette’s unruly daughter (recently arrested after an environmental protest) and Nisha’s willfully unhelpful coworkers, who seem determined to thwart her success. The two actors bring to life a host of spiky characters, ranging from a calmly controlling boss to cheeky teenagers, dashing colleagues and a wonderfully haughty government adviser. Lam plays the most powerful characters – almost all men – and it’s fascinating to watch her body language change as she becomes more fluid and expansive in these positions of power (even her voice seems to expand), filling without shames every room she enters.
Hasan is particularly good as Yvette’s boss for Eastern Europe, a woman who laughs at authority and makes fun of timesheets. It’s in these crisp comedic cuts that Lee’s writing works best. She has a cut and energetic style perfectly suited to comedic jokes (every time Nisha has sex she barks “Done!”) But can set a brittle tone to later, more dramatic encounters. Matthew Xia directs with sensitivity and Bethany Gupwell’s lighting design is particularly evocative, working hard to found this slightly wobbly but thoughtful piece.
Orange until November 13, live from November 4 to 5. Then tour, February-April.