Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy loses girl after evil shape-shifter assumes form of golden deer to distract girl, leading to girl’s abduction by demon king and boy’s subsequent battle against said demon king. If this sounds familiar, you either have a spectacular love life or you’ve heard of the ancient epic poem Ramayana. A centuries-old touchstone, the sprawling Sanskrit story contains profound moral and religious meaning for millions of people in South and Southeast Asia. It has been passed on through oral tradition over hundreds of years, translated into many languages, and excerpted for the stage via theater, dance and puppetry. And now Seattle has a version all its own.
Ramayana is the first production by ACT’s Affiliate Artists Working Group, a collection of directors, writers, actors, choreographers and composers created in 2010 and led by ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie, with the mission of guiding the theater’s philosophy and creating new work. Beattie brought the Ramayana to the table early on. “I have grown more and more interested in Asian culture and art over the last decade or so,” he explains, “the Indian epics in particular.” He suspected Ramayana was “the perfect project” for the group.
It’s a vast story with a simple core. A hero tale that…is also a moral conversation that remains universal: What is one’s duty to one’s family, one’s nation and one’s self? What is true love, both in the familial and personal sense?
The Affiliate Artists creative team includes two prominent Seattle directors (Beattie and Sheila Daniels), two acclaimed local playwrights (Yussef El Guindi and Stephanie Timm), an award-winning local set designer (Matthew Smucker) and an esteemed contemporary dance choreographer (Maureen Whiting). The group spent two years researching the story, adapting it into a script, designing sets, choreographing dance elements, and determining fight scenes, music and puppetry in the name of creating a dynamic, refreshed Ramayana.
Centering on Rama (an avatar of the god Vishnu who represents virtue), his wife Sita (avatar of the goddess Lakshmi, symbolic of female purity) and Ravana (powerful demon king of Sri Lanka), the Ramayana also contains talking vultures, conniving monkeys, vengeful extended family and plenty of insight into human values and the concept of dharma (natural law). “It’s a vast story with a simple core,” says Beattie. “A hero tale that…is also a moral conversation that remains universal: What is one’s duty to one’s family, one’s nation and one’s self? What is true love, both in the familial and personal sense?”
Codirector Daniels says the story appealed to her for several reasons, including “the idea of [taking the] right action, even when it is difficult.” She became especially fascinated by Sita’s journey. “How is she on her own path? Is her choice to step into the fire one of power or weakness?” she wondered. “I feel a responsibility to speak to the feminine experience in this story.”
Playwrights Timm and El Guindi had the task of not merely transforming the gigantic original story (which contains 24,000 verses) into a standard-length script, but also lending it a modern accessibility without losing the poetry and sense of history. “My favorite part is the way love is depicted,” says Timm. “When these characters fall in love, it’s more like a sickness, like they’ve come down with a terrible flu,” she says. “When they are in love, they suffer, and they suffer theatrically. I enjoyed conveying that.”
El Guindi and Timm are both known for writing humorous plays that tackle large-scale societal issues. For this play, however, the proportions are somewhat reversed. “You have these larger-than-life characters with outsized passions that sometimes begged for a humorous poke here and there,” says El Guindi. “In fact, there were times when we had to rein in that humor so as not to take away from the seriousness of certain scenes.”
Several scenes are conveyed wordlessly, through dance and puppetry, which gives the play what Beattie calls a “choreopoetic” sensibility. Choreographer Whiting explains, “Dance plays the same role [in Ramayana] as it does in Indian theater or Bollywood movies, which is to provide an energetic and romantic sense of the story when words cannot.” (She calls this “solving problems.”) In the play, she uses a fusion of her own contemporary movement with classic mudras (hand gestures) and Indian dance numbers. Whiting feels a personal connection to the story—she travels to India every two years with her Indian husband and their children. She hopes to be an ambassador of sorts by way of the play, reflecting “the spirit of the Ramayana and the truth of Indian philosophy” through dance.
Scenic designer Smucker’s driving charge was to “convey the story with an elegant simplicity.” Using a palette of intense blues and greens, patterns based on Indian block prints, and combinations of cloth, bamboo and rope, his intent is to “acknowledge tradition, but find fresh ways of allowing the story to unfold.” Inspired by the bamboo scaffolding still seen in contemporary India, he crafted an open bamboo framework that can shift quickly. “Bamboo towers, arches and stairs are repositioned to become cities, forests and chariots as we need them to be,” he explains.
Noting the complexity required for such fluidity to succeed on stage, Beattie says the Ramayana is “a great test of every tool and technique, physical and aesthetic, that an acting company, writers, choreographers, musicians, puppeteers and directors can bring to it.” But in the end, the most important thing is generating a “vibrant and fresh sense of our own humanity.” El Guindi agrees, adding, “The outer trappings may seem exotic, but the emotions driving the story will be very familiar.”
PHOTO CREDIT: HAYLEY YOUNG