Constellation Theatre has tackled the ultimate, a North American premiere of Peter Oswald’s The Ramayana, about the god Rama‘s adventures as he struggles to save his beloved from the clutches of demons. Based on a Sanskrit tale of passion and adventure, Ramayana, (pronounced Rah-MY-un) is packed with it all—gods and demons, romance, friendship, tests of faith and loyalty, all as a testament to the power of love. And in this case, endurance, since the spectacles of the performance go on and on, and then some. Toward the end it felt like the company was trying too hard to top its own dazzling reputation for wonder and sheer delight. Still, it’s a small price to pay for the magnitude of the achievement, the likes of which won’t be seen for awhile.
This passage to India derives from an epic that has been told throughout the ages and produced in various forms and incarnations worldwide. In its signature style, Constellation has grasped the age-old tales of love, life journeys, struggles of good and evil, and loyalty that resonate with the universal cognition of the heart-beat. Ramayana is an extravaganza of artistic expression of all of this and more, filled with sights, sounds, colors, music and yes, the almighty drum beat.
The Helen Hayes Award winning master percussionist Tom Teasley sets the tone during open seating. Enough cannot be said about Teasley’s impact as part of the show with his vast array of instruments and omnipresent involvement enhancing the mood, creating the effects of rain, and even the ocean waves as part of his absolute genius on percussions.
The opening scene introduces the jaw-dropping work of a team of make-up artists and costume designers led by Kendra Rai who bring us into the wondrous world of Rama, played by the engaging and strongly chiseled Andreu Honeycutt. First of all, and this is no spoiler alert because as can be seen from all the marketing, he is blue – not just a quick makeup along the edges blue, but a gorgeous ocean deep blue on limbs and fingers and, well, just deal with it, the dude is seriously blue. His beloved wife Sita is played by the always captivating Heather Haney who gets a chance to shine, sparkle, dance and mesmerize in all interactions. Also up to task is Danny Gavigan wonderfully cast as Lakshman, one of Rama’s brothers with piercing eyes and innate warrior tendencies to serve and protect in his fierce call to duty, while Ashley Ivey rounds out this amazing band of brothers. Despite all their warnings and watchfulness, Sita inevitably falls into the clutches of the demon King, played with lip-smacking appeal by Jim Jorgensen, yes that Jorgensen, so you know his performance is destined to be incredible, and it is. He’s got quite an entourage with Misty Demory as his wife and Abby Wood his sister playing his emissaries for evil with cunning and treacherous appeal.
The rest of the highlights are too plentiful to mention, but the always amazing Joe Brack has outdone himself in physical prowess as the conscious-ridden monkey god, Hanuman, who strives to stay true to his word to assist in the rescue, despite the monkey-shines of his fellow kinsmen.
Speaking of monkeys, the entire second act generally occurs in the animal kingdom of primates, bears, eagles, even a delicate golden deer in the quest to find and liberate Sita. Dylan Myers struts his stuff as King of the Monkeys, and each portrays his or her own unique characteristics and personality traits, with adoring appeal. Rai’s creative partner Anna St. Germaine crafted the original masks that allowed the large cast to play the multiple roles, and Stockman in her usual visionary approach has full and energetic command of the stylizations.
Scenic and lighting designer A.J. Guban works his usual wonders creating a multi-tiered set large enough for the full cast in all manner of dress and movement, including swinging tails, and climbing lattice rungs perfect for eagles to perch and climbing monkeys. He also adds mystical touches with a symbolic campfire in the front and center stage, and opening and closing entrances within the set for spirits and creatures to enter and exit at will. It’s all quite a marvel.
Oswald’s lyrical text is filled with gems in contemplating man’s nature while thrashing out battles of good and evil and struggles for power. “Ask yourself what you are” suggests one of the characters, while another admonishes to rule by strength of what is right, and another extols on the wonders of a breath of freedom. Beautiful indeed, yet, it’s here where despite the romps across the ocean and contemplations of honor and valor, with even a monkey rap thrown in for fun, that the production struggles under its own weight of artistic destiny. The text covers a lot of territory including an out of this world animal kingdom, so it’s bound to lumber a bit. As a North American premiere, it will finds its pace and entertainment capacity and will likely adjust accordingly. For now, having a first hand glimpse at such a daunting tale more than compensates for a long-winded patch or two and screeching howling primates interpreting an innovative script.
Gaurav Gopalan, a guru in excavating the nuggets from all kinds of texts, is serving as dramaturg. He describes the significance of Ramayana as “the pre-eminent epic in India,” while recognizing the universal appeal in its message “To be true to yourself always and to perform your duties to the best of your abilities is the purpose of …life.” That is exactly what Constellation has done in this bold and beautiful rendition of a world treasure, also its 10th production, and we are all the better for the journey.
By Peter Oswald
Music by Tom Teasley
Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman
Produced by Constellation Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
The Ramayana plays through June 6, 2010