Reducing a 24,000-verse poem into a three-hour theater show isn’t easy, but Seattle’s ACT Theatre has done a convincing and creative job of it. The “Ramayana,” that 2,500-year-old epic about the divine prince Rama and his beautiful wife Sita in their exile, tribulations and final glory, is a tale that few in India would dare to condense like this. Yet ACT’s world premiere version, full of stunning costumes, clever effects, joyous dance and heartfelt acting, nails the philosophy with a Western brevity and wit.
Of course, they’ve left a lot out. Intrinsic to many Asian cultures, the Ramayana has been recited for days on end by itinerant storytellers, told with puppets, made into lengthy films and televised in a series of Sunday broadcasts that had India’s millions at a weekly standstill. It tells Rama’s life from child to adult, and all the layers of history that went before him and around him through dozens of side characters. It’s not only a big work, it’s a big ask of Western audiences: unfamiliar gods, unpleasant principles like self-immolation and a world where human flaws sit in the same body as divine or demonic powers. To bridge the gap, ACT directors Sheila Daniels and Kurt Beattie have pared the story down to the essentials – Rama’s boyhood strength and wooing of Sita, his exile with Sita and brother Lakshman, Sita’s abduction by the demon king Ravana, her rescue by Rama and Hanuman the monkey god and her final trial by fire to become Rama’s accepted queen.
If you know the story, you’ll notice all the depth that’s skimmed over. But if you haven’t it’s a ripping good tale, and ACT’s superb cast knows exactly how to tell it.
As Rama, Rafael Untalan hits just the right note of a strong, virtuous man who doesn’t yet know he’s also a god (the seventh incarnation of Vishnu). Buff and wise (the perfect hero), he wrestles with the play’s essential moral dilemmas with a calm humanity. Khanh Doan is a delightful Sita, regal yet bubbly, fiery yet loyal (and scarily crazy as the plotting hunchback Manthara). Tim Gouran makes the most of his lines to give Lakshman some ironic, if not comic, relief as Rama’s sidekick. All other cast members double: John Farrage as a ruthless Ravana plus narrating sage, Jim Gall regal as king Dasartha plus a demon, Cheyenne Casebier as the selfish queen Kaikeyi.
Stealing the show is little Akhi Vadari, who sings and dances adorably as Rama’s young alter-ego and helper.
It’s a clever production, solving dramatic events like battles, oceans and superhuman arrows with a combination of dance, narration, minimal bamboo set pieces and even highly effective shadow puppetry. It moves smoothly around the audience, drawing us into moments like Rama’s shooting demonstration and a monkey fight, and the dance borrows from both Indian classical and bhangra to highlight moments without distracting, to a wonderful score that blends Indian with gamelan. Sari-style costumes convey both regality and rawness, and lend both demons and monkeys their intrinsic nature. And Sita’s fire immolation is a marvel of dance, lighting and flowing fabric, with a Cecil B. de Mille panoply of gods to back it up.
Flaws are minor. Rama and Ravana’s standoff with magical weapons is a cartoon version of the original, and Shiva dancing in the battlefield smells of Western myth rather than Indian. Philosophical dialogue moments are often too drawn-out (Ravana’s battle planning, Rama’s questioning of Sita’s chastity).
But overall, what shines through this “Ramayana” is a deep understanding of the philosophy of Hinduism: inescapable fate, and honoring duty and promises before self. That, plus a gripping retelling of a tale you’re unlikely to see anywhere else in this country.
“The Ramayana” also includes Asian vendor markets in the lobby through Nov. 4 and the lecture “Many Sitas” on Nov. 3. Two Indian exhibits, one based on the Ramayana, are currently on show at Seattle Asian Art Museum.
“The Ramayana” continues Tuesdays-Saturdays through Nov. 11 at ACT, 700 Union Ave., Seattle. Tickets $37.50-$55. 206-292-7676, acttheatre.org