ACT Theatre’s Artistic Director Kurt Beattie has taken a huge risk in mounting a new, abbreviated English-language version of the ancient Sanskrit epic Ramayana. This is one of the two great sagas of India and Nepal (the other is the Mahabharata) and is performed, often over several days, throughout southern Asia.
Like the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is not just a story: it presents the teachings of ancient Hindu sages in narrative allegory, interspersing philosophical and devotional elements. The characters are fundamental to the cultural consciousness of India, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma and many South-East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia.
As in all great epics, the Ramayana has a hero, tribulations that he must survive, a great love story, and a happy ending. This particular epic is also chock full of magical characters and demons, some of them friendly and some bent on our hero’s destruction.
Written roughly between 100 and 500 BC, the Ramayana consists of 24,000 verses; the title translates to “Rama’s Journey,” and tells the story of Prince Rama (the avatar of the god Vishnu) who falls passionately in love with Princess Sita. When Rama is exiled from his kingdom, he and Sita flee to the forest, where Sita is abducted by the evil king Lanka. The core of the plot — at least in ACT’s production — is Rama’s search for Sita and how he vanquishes Lanka with the aid of the monkey king Hanuman.
In Hindu culture, the Ramayana is a guide to devotion, right action, the moral life, and dharma. The notion of dharma must be understood to fully appreciate any production of the Ramayana. It refers to the concept of upholding, supporting or maintaining the natural order of the universe and the behaviors necessary to that order. Dharma encompasses ideas like duty, work, religion, and everything that is considered proper and decent behavior.
In the Ramayana, dharma is expressed through the idealized main characters — the ideal hero, ideal servant, ideal brother, and ideal wife. A clear example is in the relationship between Rama and his brother Bharata. When Queen Kaikeyi, the favorite wife of Rama’s father, schemes to have her son Bharata named successor to the king and Rama banished from the kingdom for 14 years, Bharata threatens to kill himself rather than assume the throne. Rama convinces Bharata he must remain king until the 14 years are up because their father has made a formal declaration, and Bharata agrees. How different this is from the Western tradition in which brothers often plot against and even kill each other in order to gain power.
In an effort to make the Ramayana accessible to a contemporary Western audience, Artistic Director Beattie hired two local playwrights — Yussef El Guindi (author of the recent Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World) and Stephanie Timm (company playwright for New Century Theatre Company) — to shorten and modernize the script. They have created a production with a running time of 2 hours 45 minutes (including two intermissions), which Beattie, sharing directing credit with Sheila Daniels, has fleshed out with gorgeous, if minimalistic, sets and costumes. The entire production cost $500,000, due in part to the laborious process that Beattie used to bring the Ramayana to the stage. Years in the making, with many in-house readings and workshops, ACT’s version has been a hugely collaborative effort. Besides the two playwrights and two directors, the creative team included ACT’s Affiliate Artist Working Group, choreographer Maureen Whiting, scenic designer Matthew Smucker, costume and mask designer Melanie Burgess, plus others from ACT’s first-rate production staff.
Given so much effort and so many resources necessary to produce this Ramayana, it’s disheartening to have to say that the results are decidedly mixed. On the positive side, there’s no question that, except for a lagging middle act, the production moves along swiftly. The spare production design is beautifully conceived and executed, especially Smucker’s sets, which consist largely of filigree door frames and flowing fabric, a menacing giant red monster, and Burgess’ inventive costumes, especially Hanuman’s monkey outfit.
Brandon O’Neill, seen most recently at ACT in First Date, is a riveting Hanuman, the only actor who manages to speak El Guindi and Timm’s bizarre colloquial lines without sounding like a transplant from a TV sitcom. O’Neill captures perfectly the mythic qualities of his character and, with his dark good looks, is one of the few members of the cast whose physical appearance makes some sense.
The fact that there are almost no actors of Indian background is a major defect. The adorable child actor Akhi Vadari, who opens and closes the production by singing some verses from the original Ramayana, provides the few moments of authenticity in his physical appearance, his singing and his dancing. Whiting’s choreographic attempts at Indian-style movement fall far short and, despite their best efforts, the Anglo actors just can’t get the steps down right. Only Vadari manages to take Whiting’s steps and infuse them with the angularity and control that Indian dance requires.
In all fairness, the cast has had a huge challenge in embodying characters from a completely different theatrical tradition, and seeming both human and mythic at the same time. Besides O’Neill, Anne Allgood (despite her blond hair) brings the requisite magic to her various roles, most notably as the female demon who tries but fails to seduce our hero Rama.
Despite this Ramayana’s many charms, if audiences expect to see and feel the power of the original or feel a connection to the cultures in which it is central, they are bound to be disappointed. Beattie has said the reason he chose to solicit a new English translation is that there is no authoritative version in our language. Unfortunately, El Guindi and Timm are not able to provide one; whether such a successful effort is possible remains to be seen.
If you go: Ramayana, ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street, through Nov. 11. Tickets $37.50-55; students, $15; those 25 and under, $20; seniors 25 percent off adult price; tickets available at the box office, by phone 206.292.7676 or online at www.acttheatre.org.