How epic is the source material for The Fire and The Rain, the newest North American premiere of South Asian drama at Constellation Theater? Literally, the most epic.
No hyperbole here, the Mahabharata is the longest epic poem ever recorded, with more words than the Bible and works of Shakespeare combined. The Mahabharata’s level of cultural influence is similar as well, in addition to being written on a Proustian scale.
So, even though playwright Girish Karnad only draws from a sliver of this most epic poem, there’s no surprise that The Fire and The Rain clocks in at two and a half hours. Despite the nasty chainsaw editor in me who could take maybe fifteen minutes of air out of the play, The Fire and The Rain matures over time—like fine wine, blue cheese, or a marriage—so patience’ final payoff is all the sweeter.
The moral of the play is rooted in patience as well. We follow three characters, sons of great priests: Yavakri (who sees hermetic living as a shortcut to enlightenment), Paravasu (who thinks he will be enlightened by following rituals) and poor Arvasu (who doesn’t care about enlightenment; he wants to marry his beloved Nittilai). Much as in Greek myths, these larger than life characters can be so like us in their selfishness, stubbornness and hopefulness.
The script mostly follows Arvasu, whose pitfalls and pratfalls in pursuit of love and family harmony give the audience a thread to follow in the complicated and sometimes groaningly byzantine plot of The Fire and The Rain. Arvasu suffers through marrying outside of his caste (a big no-no for a priest’s son), violent pursuit by other characters, secret desire to perform onstage (also a big no-no for a priest’s son), and the plain bad luck of his unserendipitous life. Actor Dallas Tolentino gives Arvasu the “dumb, but lovable” treatment, but what I love about his portrayal is that he doesn’t fall into the trap of a two dimensional simpleton à la Candide or Forrest Gump. In fact, Tolentino is so adept at portraying his character’s naivety that his later developments of depth in grief, confusion, and rage took me by surprise.
Less surprising (given Tolentino’s extensive background with movement-based Synetic Theater) though perhaps more impressive, is the artful movement throughout The Fire and The Rain. Even though Tolentino is the obvious choice for top dancer in the cast, since he has a couple of gorgeous and acrobatic scenes, this whole ensemble gives him a run for his money.
Lynette Rathnam as Nittilai shows great range in using her body to convey emotions: from fierce to doting, from teasing to motherly. Katy Carkuff and Jonathan Church, playing Paravasu’s wife and father respectively, both find physicality that lets them embody characters that otherwise might seem to be out of their wheelhouse—Church’s vicious old man Raibhya prowls ferally with a low center of gravity and, if you pay attention to Carkuff’s life-worn yet capricious Vishakha, you can see how movement from her shoulders almost drag the rest of her body from impulse to impulse.
Most impressive for me was Jonathan Lee Taylor, whose Yavakri not only has a hateable charm and likeable hubris that drive the first act emotionally, but also has a physical discipline crediting his acting craft. For this character, he’s found a conatus (that is, a striving persistence of being) where his physical actions seem to grow out of each other successively. Even when his character took a surprising turn, I could see how the “changed” Yavakri always lived inside Taylor’s earlier physical choices for the character. As importantly, he could turn these choices off when working in the generally excellent group movement pieces, dances choreographed by Kelly King or fights coordinated by Robb Hunter.
Those well-coordinated group movement pieces were not as flamboyant as Arvasu’s dance, but their subtlety in storytelling (giving related characters slight rhythmic movements accompanied by group breathing) shows how well Director Allison Arkell Stockman knows her stuff. She captures a bit of the epic magic of the Mahabharata, but in order to get that magic trick payoff, you have to be patient through some disorienting choices.
The some of curves of A.J. Guban’s set are Escher-like, finished with swirling taupe texture, and those contrast with boxy stairs and fire pit, which contrast with pseudo-bamboo poles surrounding the se that create jungle-esque lanes of darkness over a not insignificant portion of the stage. All of this geometric stimulation is clever sleight-of-hand, not only creating a plethora of levels for Stockman to block on, but also special concealment that lets her play with location and gives her a chance to pull a final stunt, of which I will only say that it is a surprise worthy of the admission price.
THE FIRE AND THE RAIN
April 23 – May 24
Constellation Theatre at
1835 14th Street, NW
Tickets: $20 – $45
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
The other element of the show that really provides bang for your buck is Tom Teasley’s music, which is not only the soundtrack of the play, but the transitional mortar that holds the plays scenes together. He plays and mixes this music live with a stunning array of instruments, including a Melodica, various drums, and a looper to replay the sounds he’s just created to create layered music. Teasley’s work keeps The Fire and the Rain in the source material with his melodic choices, but also keeps the audience present with his on-the-fly mixing, smoothing over rough transitions with an interlude of his own. He’s fun to watch, and even though he was on the stage the entire time, I kept wanting more of him.
What I’d love to see more of in The Fire and The Rain is pace and a focus on ensuring that important moments are communicated clearly. Westerners lack of familiarity with the source material probably contributes to both of these. When dealing with solemn subjects familiar to your audience, it’s generally okay to slow the action down a bit, because religiously or culturally invested observers will tend to reinvest their interest in each detailed choice in portraying a famous character. For me, I’m not predisposed to caring about these characters from previous experience with them, so I’d prefer the action to clip along until I learn why these characters are so important.
The other side of the unfamiliarity coin is that if the play is driving at full pace, an audience close to the source material easily forgives the skimming of an event, because they already know what is supposed to happen. For me and for some other audiences members I spoke with, the haste of The Fire and The Rain’s climax meant that we missed a crucial event, the death of a character, only to be surprised when it was referenced in the denouement.
But this miss is the exception, rather than the rule, of The Fire and The Rain. The play will take you on an epic journey, full of moments that are alternately earnest, funny, sad, and beautiful. I recommend The Fire and The Rain if you have a long open night and you’re in a contemplative mood, if you like the showiness of epic tragedy (if you like the Greeks, you’ll like this), or you’re interested in discovering how South Asian storytelling mixes with some fine movement in a North American premiere.
The Fire and the Rain by Garish Karnad . Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman . Featuring Dallas Tolentino, Lynette Rathnam, Michael Kevin Darnall, Jonathan L. Taylor, Katy Carkuff, Ashley Ivey, Ryan Andrew Mitchell, Jonathan Church, DeJeanette Home, Eric Andrew Porter, and Shawn Jain . Set Design and Lighting Design: A. J. Guban . Costume Design: Kendra Rai . Sound Design and original music: Tom Teasley . Choreography: Kelly King . Fight Choreography: Robb Hunter . Properties: Samina Vieth . Stage manager: Cheryl Ann Gnerlich . Produced by Constellation Theatre . Reviewed by Alan Katz.