Dastardly demons, an army of supernatural monkeys, a hunky hero and his unwavering wife with perfect toenails: The characters are larger than life in ACT’s romance-and battle-packed Ramayana, an updated version of the 1,000-year-old epic. Toss in a healthy dose of Bollywood glitz, and what’s not to like?
The play, adapted for stage by Yussef El Guindi and Stephanie Timm, celebrates the universal appeal of this beloved Hindu story and also stirs the pot of the Northwest’s new tech-fueled global culture. The theater lobby, set up like an Indian bazaar with vendors of jewelry, chai and assorted trinkets, allows ACT to play its own small part in international trade and cultural exchange. On the evening I attended, the local Indian community was out in force to support the effort. The whole package is great fun—and edifying, too.
Co-directors Sheila Daniels and Kurt Beattie build the action gradually, turning up the heat in each act of the nearly three-hour production, with many members of the cast re-emerging throughout in new costumes and characters. As a group the actors carry the action well—with Rafael Untalan and Khanh Doan gracefully filling the lead roles of Rama, the earthly avatar of Vishnu, and his wife Sita—particularly toward the end, when Rama loses his godly cool for a while and starts behaving like a petulant jealous husband. There is definitely some scene-stealing by Brandon O’Neill who cavorts as Hanuman, the monkey god, as well as by the preternaturally gifted boy actor Akhi Vadari, who opens and closes the play with authentic Indian song and dance, then flits in and out of the action, delivering joy and, in one memorable scene, a tree-piercing arrow.
That arrow move is one the directors borrowed from Peter Brooks’ renowned stage production of The Mahabharata, filmed in 1989, which clearly inspired their work. At a crucial moment in the battle, Krishna himself slowly carries to its target a fateful arrow that will shift the course of war—then mindfully, without anger or remorse, stabs it in. It’s mesmerizing. If you enjoy ACT’s current romp through Hindu mythology, Brooks's brilliant staging of the Mahabharata’s good-against-evil clash between rival clans is a must-see, with an awe-inspiring international cast and enough poetry and visual thrills to unleash goosebumps.
Seeing the Ramayana enacted on stage is a perfect introduction to the Seattle Asian Art Museum exhibition Many Arrows from Rama’s Bow: Painting of the Ramayana. The jewel-like paintings mean so much more when you know the story they depict by heart and can relive it through them, scene after scene.
Thru Nov 11, ACT Theatre, $15–$55
Many Arrows from Rama’s Bow: Painting of the Ramayana
Thru Dec 2, Seattle Asian Art Museum