The Ramayana, Peter Oswald’s adaptation of the Sanskrit epic of the same name, returns to Constellation Theatre Company for a three week limited engagement after the overwhelming success of their spring 2010 production. Most of the original cast, as well as Helen Hayes Award-winning composer/performer Tom Teasley, are present in the remount, and the new performers are seamlessly incorporated into the company.
One of India’s two great epics, The Ramayana, along with its sister, The Mahabharata, is often compared to the Greek [Homer’s] The Odyssey and The Iliad. Peter Oswald manages to shave The Ramayana’s 24,000 verses down to a manageable 2 hour and 15 minute (plus intermission) play. The Ramayana tells the story of Rama (Andreu Honeycutt), an avatar of the god Vishnu, and his beautiful wife Sita (Heather Haney), who is the epitome of feminine virtue and a god herself. After Ravana (Jim Jorgensen), the king of the demons, kidnaps Sita, Rama must go on a truly epic journey to save her, enlisting the help of monkeys, bears, eagles, and mountains along the way.
The defining feature of this production is Tom Teasley’s music; the traditional labels of ‘Composer’ or ‘Sound Designer’ do not accurately describe what Teasley contributes. Combining pre-recorded tracks with live performance, Teasley accompanies the action, highlighting mood and movement with a variety of exotic instruments, and occasionally taking center stage during scene transitions and pre/post show. Teasley is an absolute master of his craft, transcending the surprisingly restrictive generic label of ‘World Music’, and this production is worth seeing if only for his performance.
Thankfully, The Ramayana has a lot more to offer than just its soundtrack. A.J. Gubin’s lighting and scenic design are absolutely magical. The sets are simple and highly functional, providing lots of playing space for this super-physical production but magic really happens when the lights begin to change. The subtly reflective surfaces and lacquered floors pick up the color of the lights, transforming the settings from sunlit jungles, to eerie oceans, to fiery demon lairs in an instant. The masks created by Costume Designer Kendra Rai are exquisite, and bring all the monkeys, demons, and other non-human character to life.
The fast-paced movement, fight and dances, combined with the pseudo-Shakespearean text of Oswald’s adaptation make for a challenge that the company handled well. Director Allison Arkell Stockman’s Brechtian influences are both felt and appreciated in The Ramayana; the beautiful, highly crafted stage pictures, and the masterful use of music and song drive and support the performance of the multi-talented cast.
Honeycutt’s blue-painted Rama is the perfect combination of power and benevolence, and Haney manages to inject the vitreous (and potentially boring) Sita with wiry humor without losing her ethereal charm. Matt McGloin (a new addition to the remount cast) shines as Hanuman, a monkey god whose discovery of his other-worldly powers help him to save the day. McGloin, with his controlled, acrobatic movement, and perfectly primate-like vocalization, is a stand-out among an already excellent cast of monkeys. Many of the actors do double-duty playing monkeys, demons, and other animals, and in every case the physical transformation from character to character is a pleasure to watch. Katie Atkinson, playing both the monkey Nila, and the demon Maricha, creates two characters so vastly different and equally effective that it is difficult to believe that one actress performs both roles.
Constellation Theatre Company’s The Ramayana is beautifully done, and their decision to remount the popular production is understandable. As much as I loved the opening Monkey scenes, I was going bananas as the joke kept repeating itself over and over after two and a half hours.