Theater review: 'The Ramayana' at Constellation Theatre
Discussions of the nature of God. Jokes about monkeys' rear ends. There aren't many plays that feature both -- while throwing in, for good measure, a plot about royal exiles, prophetic eagles, miraculous stones, a golden deer, a woman who proves her virtue on a burning pyre and a whole tribe of torture-happy demons.
But the ever-intrepid Constellation Theatre Company is presenting just such a play: Peter Oswald's dramatized distillation of the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu epic. Billed as the script's North American premiere (the work debuted in England in 2000), director Allison Arkell Stockman's production proves to be an entertaining, pocket-size extravaganza: mysterious, energetic, funny and bedecked with enough eye-catching pageantry to stretch up and down a minor Himalayan peak (or so it seems).
Like many offerings from this three-year-old troupe, which specializes in epics and relies on a core ensemble, "The Ramayana" has a relatively large cast. But the real stars are the designers -- in particular, costumier Kendra Rai and mask designer Anna St. Germain, whose contributions are sumptuous and ingenious.
Human characters -- such as the hero Rama (Andreu Honeycutt), a banished prince who happens to be an incarnation of the god Vishnu -- glide around in intricate outfits of silks and satins. The demon king Ravana (Jim Jorgensen), who abducts Rama's wife, Sita (Heather Haney), has faces with glittery eyes on the back of his head; his fellow fiends sport headdress-like masks festooned with streamers. An eagle is a dignified hulk of red tassels and crinkled gold fabric. There's exotic bling everywhere. (Vicki Mitchell masterminded the costume jewelry.)
Complementing the spectacle with spareness, A.J. Guban supplies a simple tiered set, flanked by gold ladders that underscore the motif of the divine mingling with the earthly. Guban, also the production's lighting designer, wizards up supernatural effects, such as magical flames. Composer Tom Teasley -- like Guban, a Constellation regular -- sits on the side of the stage, intently performing his invaluable now-spooky, now pulse-quickening percussion-heavy score.
Oh, and did we mention there are actors? Bow (sans arrow) in hand, his skin bright cobalt (Rama is traditionally depicted as blue), Honeycutt displays regal poise and the kind of benign calm only a deity could muster when ostracized to a forest. In her turquoise-and-hot-pink sari, Haney is also compelling -- serene and statuesque during her character's goddess-like moments, but turning vixenish when teasing her brother-in-law Lakshman (Danny Gavigan).
Scuttling around with simian postures and a hopeful air, Joe Brack is winning as the monkey god Hanuman. As for Jorgensen's Ravana: This insinuating, malicious figure is the Sanskrit-epic equivalent of a mustache-twirling melodrama villain.
Although the performers' Indian dance gestures look ersatz (Amber Jackson choreographed), Stockman has obviously worked hard to conjure an otherworldly atmosphere through stylized movement and rhythms. (Gaurav Gopalan is the dramaturge.) Half adventure yarn, half mystical carnival, the production gives due breathing room to the script's considerable lyricism.
Philosophically minded audience members will relish the implicit musings on the themes of divinity, faith, deception and self-control. Fans of low comedy get a little of that, too, particularly with the ensemble's amusing portraits of primates (jabbering, squealing, clambering up things, picking invisible fleas off each other). This "Ramayana," you might say, runs from the sublime to the ridiculous -- in a good way.
Wren is a freelance writer.
By Peter Oswald. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; properties design, Samina Vieth; technical director, Brendon Vierra; fight choreography, Joe Brack; costume craft specialist, Joshua Kelly. With Katie Atkinson, Misty Demory, Ashley Ivey, Jason McCool, Dylan Myers, Amy Quiggins, Andrés Talero and Abby Wood. About 2 1/2 hours. Through June 6 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Call 202-204-7741 or visit http:/