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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 26, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 43
Ramayana staging an epic gamble
Arts & Entertainment
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Ramayana staging an epic gamble

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

RAMAYANA
ACT THEATRE
Through November 11

ACT Theatre and its leadership - managing director Carlo Scandiuzzi and artistic director Kurt Beattie - occasionally take on huge challenges that they believe in, knowing they might lose their shirts. One such gamble was the importation of a wonderful theater group from the Ukraine in 2008. The Ilkhom Theatre Festival presented a unique opportunity to experience how this company developed its projects and, despite a language barrier and supertitles, told a story everyone could understand. It was gorgeous.

Their current undertaking is probably even more of a gamble. They developed, over a period of at least two years, a new English treatment of a story from Southeast Asia's revered Ramayana. Like the Mahabharata, the Bible, and the Koran, this epic contains stories that dictate cultural teachings and is considered a template for proper behavior. While Western theater audiences are used to seeing stories about Jesus and Greek epics like The Odyssey on stage, there has been far less exposure to Asian religious concepts from Buddhist, Hindu, or Taoist canons.

Also, those of Southeast Asian background might take offense at ACT's attempt to stage such a story, with few participants from India and with playwrights, Yussef El Guindi and Stephanie Timm, who are not Indian scholars or of East-Asian descent. Recognizing these and other potential issues, ACT has worked hard to connect to the local Southeast Asian community with discussions and adjacent activities. On the positive side, people from countries where the Ramayana is revered are accustomed to seeing all kinds of productions of its stories.

BEAUTIFULLY STAGED
This show is nearly three hours long, with two intermissions. It is necessarily a condensed story (the Ramayana has 24,000 verses!) of Prince Rama - avatar of the god Vishnu - and his trials and tribulations. The large cast is full of well-known Seattle talent, and the technical aspects are gorgeous, from the mobile, metal-rod and flowing material of Matthew Smucker's set design, to the colorful, meticulous, and sometimes humorous costumes of Melanie Burgess, the subtle lighting shifts of M.L. Geiger, and the supple sounds from Brendan Patrick Hogan. Directing are both Kurt Beattie and Sheila Daniels.

The first act is the best, all the way around. The very start has marvelous young Akhi Vadari singing a portion of the epic for his tutor, and he is clearly a talented young man. Establishing Prince Rama (Rafael Untalan) as a beloved figure who tries always to do the right thing is well done.

We are introduced to his first challenge - winning the hand of the beautiful Sita (a gracious Khanh Doan, well-suited to the role), stringing a bow similar to King Arthur's challenge with a sword. And then, after his father the King (Jim Gall) wants to make him successor king and one of king's three wives (Cheyenne Casebier) is lured into demanding that her son (Ray Tagavilla) be made king instead, his response is to accept all this as dharma - his fate as written by higher powers. Sita also is well-drawn and shown to want to be with him rather than live a life of ease without him.

THE MONKEY KING
Their troubles are hardly over, however, as Sita is captured by a demon's (John Farrage) tricks. In acts 2 and 3, we meet monkey king Hanuman who helps Rama try to rescue Sita. Brandon O'Neill does a great job being a mischievous monkeyperson and also leading the effort and finding his own magical power, as well.

However, these acts sound too much more colloquial, have way too many very topical references, and are much less epic-feeling than what has gone before. So, the power of the parable becomes muted, and in the third act there is so much noise and focus on the huge battle that it overpowers the rest of the story.

There was another curiosity in Rama's brother Lakshmana (played with gusto by Tim Gouran). Lakshmana was invariably a messenger who made sense, yet Rama never listens to him. It's hard to accept that the real epic would have such a reasonable character for Rama to ignore.

There are many small moments of beauty, and even of horror - like when Sita chooses to immolate herself or when Soorpanaka, Ravana's evil sister (one of Anne Allgood's roles), loses her nose and ears - that are extremely well done.

ACT is clearly trying to bring something new and different, yet culturally diverse and relevant, to the stage, and the company deserves kudos for the attempt. Whether this production lives up to the epic spectacle and grand scope of the revered story is for the audience to decide. The production is suitable for all ages. For more information, go to www.acttheatre.org or call (206) 292-7676.

Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters.

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