When it comes to fantasy, it’s hard to imagine any imaginative nine-year-old topping Anu Yadav, the 36-year-old talent behind Meena’s Dream. Yadav devised the show and plays every one of its battalion of characters, including inquisitive child Meena, her sick mother, the Hindu god Krishna, a schoolyard bully, a sensitive pharmacist, and a tree made of money, flexing her long, skinny limbs and using her huge, expressive eyes to flit from one persona to another.
It’s an extraordinary performance, and it elevates Meena’s Dream, a remarkable production by Silver Spring’s Forum Theatre, soon to be without a permanent home after its agreement with Round House wears down later this year. The show also benefits enormously from a live original score composed and performed by Anjna Swaminathan, Rajna Swaminathan, and Sam McCormally, which heightens the magical realism and Meena’s elaborate flights of fancy while also paying tribute to her and Yadav’s Indian heritage. Director Patrick Crowley enhances the live elements with ingenious lighting (Sarah Tundermann) and a set by John Bowhers that contrasts the concrete normality of Meena’s bedroom with sheets hanging above the stage that transform into fantastical environments.
Yadav’s Meena, whose story is based in part on the actor’s own experiences with poverty, lives under a cloud of anxiety—her mother is sick and, despite working late, can’t keep up with her bills, while Meena’s days at school are threatened by a girl who pelts tetherballs at her and mocks her unfamiliar lunch items. To compensate, she spends much of her time daydreaming, imagining herself as a warrior or the first astronaut to reach the edge of the universe (accompanied by a puppy). As Yadav physically transforms her environment through movement and sound effects, the musicians set just offstage play a gorgeous, whimsical soundtrack, heightening the contrast between fantasy and Meena’s humdrum real life.
The show inches toward a climax of sorts when Krishna sends Meena on a seemingly impossible odyssey through different imaginary lands, culminating in her magical adventures bleeding into her real-life problems. Meena’s story is the kind that seems tailor-made for animation, and it’s to Yadav’s and Crowley’s credit that this production has such a cinematic quality to it. And while it does feel at times like a children’s story, it isn’t juvenile in any way.
The only problem with the show’s airy, quixotic style is that it seems to lack the concrete plot that’s needed to sustain the show through its 90-minute running time. Meena’s adventures rise and fall as she zips off into her dream world and then plummets back to earth. But with a little restructuring and a very little pruning, it would be a very good Dream indeed.
Meena’s Dream is at Round House Silver Spring through January 18. Running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets are sold out for advance purchase, but available at the door. For more information, visit Forum Theatre’s website.