Having rowed up-current through my share of East Asian myths, folktales and epic sagas (I lived in South India many years ago), I have to admit I had my reservations about whether any Seattle theater – even one as cutting edge as A Contemporary Theatre – or a largely non-East Indian cast could pull off The Ramayana, one of India’s most beloved literary works.
With the opening of ACT Theatre’s Ramayana in October, I am happy to report that this feat has in fact been accomplished. The 2012 season finale is a colorful, complicated tale of love, duty, honor and the power of one’s promise. The play is equal parts vibrant, magical and mysterious. And while the long-winding story will be difficult to follow for kids below a mature age 10, older children and teens should get a kick as well as a good lesson or two out of the viewing. A promise is a promise, for one. And, taking what is not yours can lead to disastrous consequences, for another.
The heroic tale that the play is based on is an epic 4th or 5th century B.C. poem written in 24,000 verses by Valmiki, considered India’s first poet. ACT’s Ramayana was adapted from the poem by Seattle playwrights Yussef El Guindi and Stephanie Timm. It took some two years to bring the production to life, with help from more than 70 local artists. It is directed by Sheila Daniels and Kurt Beattie.
Here’s the story in a nutshell (if one can even nutshell 24,000 verses):
It opens with the birth of four sons to King Dasharatha of Ayodhya by his three wives. One son, Rama, is favored by all who meet him for his kindness, strength and dedication to his father.
Soon, the boys are grown and Rama and his brother go off to a neighboring kingdom, where he sees the beautiful princess Sita. Sparks fly fast and Rama endeavors to marry the girl. Sita’s father challenges Rama to see if he is worthy of Sita’s hand. He invites Rama to try and lift a golden bow and fling its arrow, which like Excalibur, can only be moved by the most righteous warrior. Rama lifts the bow with ease and soon the wedding is planned.
Following the wedding, Rama’s father realizes he is aging and names Rama as the next king. But before the coronation can take place, the mother of Rama’s brother calls in a long-held favor from the king; she demands he crown her son and banish Rama to the forest for 14 years. Rather than have his father break a promise, Rama willingly goes off to the forest with his wife Sita and one other brother. They soon learn Rama’s father has died of a broken heart. Yet as the years go by, they are happy in the forest, that is until Sita is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana.
Rama, all valor and honor, races to save his wife and vows to bring her back. Along the way he meets Hanuman, leader of the monkey people. Rama helps the monkey people reclaim their rightful king in the first battle of the show and they, in turn, help him defeat Ravana and his army of demons in the show’s more poignant battle. An eerie mourning scene after the battle will leave you with plenty to discuss with your kids. Was the war worth it? Is one person (Sita) worth the death of so many?
Finally set free, Sita must pass one more test before being fully reunited with her husband, who by the way is rumored to be the god Vishnu in human form. To prove that she did not let Ravana defile her, Sita sets herself on fire, a roaring inferno from which the Gods pluck her. Sita walks out of the fire into Rama’s arms having passed this test of her purity.
The two return to the kingdom of Ayodhya, where the brother who was forced by his mother to take the throne welcomes Rama home, steps down and crowns Rama king instead.
Good wins out over evil. Duty trumps greed. Love conquers all. Sigh. These are all lessons I sure want my kids to pick up. But Ramayana is also an opportunity to help them start to explore the values, mores and traditions of the non-Western world.
Matt Greene, a professor at the University of Washington and the University of Puget Sound, sums it up best in the play program: “The dramatic elements ... the search for a bride, palace intrigue, banishment and exile, kidnapping, warfare, struggles with demons, and Sita’s many ordeals, each allow their characters to demonstrate unswerving devotion to dharma, to their sacred and social duty, often at the cost of their own happiness and even at the cost of their own lives or others."
“To understand why they act as they do is to begin to understand the moral universe of India, tantalizingly familiar in some respects, but in others profoundly different from the moral universe of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” writes Greene.
While there are several stand-out performances, the first nod here goes to young Akhi Vadari, one of the first actors to step on stage. Only a few feet tall, he belts out the start of the story in a soprano so sweet it sounds like a buttery flute.
Brandon O’Neill, who plays Hanuman, is the heart of the show. I don’t know if O’Neill is East Indian or spent time there or not, but his sing-song lilt of an English-speaking Indian is spot on.
Perhaps our favorite performer in the show was dancer Belle Wolf, whose movements and grace helped bring the more surreal aspects and characters of the play to life.
Ramayana is a romp, a cultural jewel, a memorable production of classic work. For all these reasons, it’s worth a trip to ACT. It plays until Nov. 11.
If You Go...
Where: A Contemporary Theater (ACT), The Falls Theatre, 700 Union St. in Seattle.
When: Now through Nov. 11. Tuesday through Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.; matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Cost: Adults $37.50-$55, students $15, pay-what-you-can tickets are available the day of the show.
Contact: 206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org.