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Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond
Theater review:

A complex path to parenthood in 'Samsara'

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
A play with a talking fetus? Nothing out of the ordinary for Single Carrot Theatre.

The winter season has heated up nicely. In addition to such attractions as Stillpointe Theatre's vibrant staging of the musical gem "Grey Gardens," there's a stylish production from Single Carrot Theatre of Lauren Yee's provocative comedy "Samsara."

"Samsara" — in Hindu and Buddhist practices, a term for the perpetual cycle of life and death — concerns an infertile Northern California couple's attempt to enter parenthood via a surrogate mother. As she spins the story, Yee adds some surreal spices, along with overtones about race, class, lingering colonialism and privilege.

The Americans, Katie (Alix Fenhagen) and Craig (Paul Diem), need to watch their budget. So they look to India's thriving commercial surrogacy business. (The government recently pushed for a ban on the practice, excepting heterosexual married Indian couples.)

But Katie hates flying, so only Craig makes the trip to collect the child. The culture shock he faces upon arrival poses one problem; figuring out how to approach the substitute mom, Suraiya (Saraniya Tharmarajah), is another.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Katie is besieged by fantasies involving a seductive Frenchman (she picked up her French connection from her late mother, who apparently had a passion for Maurice Chevalier). Another unexpected fantasy on the other side of the world finds Suraiya communicating with the walking, talking, terribly demanding fetus inside her.

If there are sitcom elements to all of this, especially early on, "Samsara" largely avoids the commonplace. There's a beguiling quality to much of the writing, a kinetic pull from the constant back and forth of perspectives. By the end of the 90-minute play — an end that proves quite substantive and subtly affecting — a lot of ground has been covered, a lot of questions raised.

Directed by Lauren A. Saunders with a sure instinct for pacing, the Single Carrot production features a well-knit cast.

In a supple performance, Fenhagen taps into Katie's quirks and sensibilities to create a multidimensional woman who can't disguise the doubts swirling behind her determination.

The actress clicks admirably with Diem's likewise telling portrayal of Craig. The two are especially endearing in scenes of the couple making a video to share with the surrogate, trying to explain who they are and how they feel.

Tharmarajah reveals the considerable tensions faced by Suraiya, who hopes to use the profit from surrogacy to finish medical school, her late mother's dream for her. (You can't miss the symmetry of maternal issues experienced by both of the play's female characters.)

The actress' deadpan delivery comes in handy, especially involving her wry interactions with the not-yet-born Amit (Utkarsh Rajawat) — she tells the unexpected visitor that she's a "microwave," merely keeping him warm until he can meet the mother who will raise him.

Rajawat has a good scenery chew as the fetal presence, who gets some of the play's funniest lines and activity.

But everyone is pretty much left in the dust whenever Dustin C.T. Morris bounds onto the stage as the thickly accented, charm-oozing Frenchman who sends Katie spinning. Morris also does a good turn as a British physician who periodically checks on Suraiya, dispensing tasteless jokes as he probes. (He boasts membership in Doctors Without Filters.)

Single Carrot gives "Samsara" an effective staging, designed by Jason Randolph to enable a smooth flow and provide extra visual layers through finely detailed projections. An infectious Bollywood soundtrack adds perfect flavoring along the way.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Samsara" runs through Feb. 12 at Single Carrot Theatre, 2600 N. Howard St. Tickets are $22 to $29. Call 443-844-9253, or go to singlecarrot.com.

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