The solution to climate change: more plays?
In real life, probably not. But a fictional theater troupe helps humanity address a devastating drought in “The Fire and the Rain,” a marvelous play by Girish Karnad, one of India’s leading contemporary dramatists. Currently on view in a Constellation Theatre Company staging that is billed as a North American premiere, “The Fire and the Rain” is a tale packed with action, pathos, romance and supernatural goings-on, including the travails of a woebegone demon. Karnad devotes part of his canvas to the depiction of thespian characters, including a high-born Brahmin who hankers to dance and act.
The traveling-players plot line exemplifies the encyclopedic sweep of “The Fire and the Rain.” Inspired by a strand of the Indian epic “The Mahabharata,” Karnad’s play ponders the range of human experience: domestic, romantic, social, spiritual and (given the theater motif) artistic. The script evokes Shakespeare. A central love story calls to mind “Romeo and Juliet.” The focus on family tensions, a class divide and a crisis-menaced kingdom resembles the coverage of those motifs in “Henry IV.” And then there is the aforementioned theater-troupe subplot, which culminates in a play-within-a-play performance that is as revelatory as the comparable sequence in “Hamlet.”
It is a lot to take on, but Constellation has a track record with Indian epics, having mounted a well-received production of “The Ramayana” in 2010 and 2011. The creative team is back for “The Fire and the Rain.” Constellation’s founding artistic director Allison Arkell Stockman has handled staging duties; Kendra Rai has contributed the colorful costumes. And the masterful composer and performer Tom Teasley once again provides atmospheric music throughout the show from a position on A.J. Guban’s set.
The set here consists of a bamboo-thicket backdrop, a set of tiered steps and a sunken hearth where fire often smolders. The hearth represents the sacred altar where the priest Paravasu (a brooding Michael Kevin Darnall) has been overseeing a seven-year-long fire sacrifice aimed at ending a ruinous drought. Meanwhile, Paravasu’s less haughty brother, Arvasu (Dallas Tolentino), longs to act, dance and marry his sweetheart Nittilai (Lynette Rathnam), who — star-crossed love alert! — comes from a different caste. When the willful and bitter Yavakri (Jonathan Lee Taylor) returns from a stint of religious devotion in the jungle, he triggers natural and supernatural events that threaten both brothers — and perhaps the entire realm.
This wealth of narrative touches on serious themes, including the clash between individualism and the common good and the difficulty of reconciling religious duty with obligations to humankind. But at least in this production, the storytelling is lively and flecked with humor.
The sparring, flirting conversations between the intense Yavakri and Vishakha (Katy Carkuff), Yavakri’s spirited, skeptical former flame, are particularly watchable. The demon known as the Brahma Rakshasa (Ryan Andrew Mitchell), who stalks around with a trident-like weapon, is a spectacular and ominous presence — one that figures pivotally in the story’s moving ending — but he’s often a bit droll, too.
Tolentino’s Arvasu — a sweet, hapless, slightly goofy dreamer — periodically ups the entertainment quotient with impressive acrobatic sequences. One set of moves is enough to win him a job with the traveling theater troupe, whose cash-strapped Actor Manager (Ashley Ivey) hits on the idea of staging a play as part of the fire-sacrifice ceremony. The plan hits a couple of snags — for one thing, the masks turn out to have treacherous mystical powers — but the Actor Manager radiates the kind of determination that has fueled many a let’s-put-on-a-show plot line. “I never give up,” he says.
Wren is a freelance writer.
By Girish Karnad. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; lighting design, A.J. Guban; fight director, Robb Hunter; dance and movement choreographer, Kelly King; prop designer, Samina Vieth; assistant director, Amita Jha. With Jonathon Church, DeJeanette Horne, Shawn Jain and Eric Andrew Porter. 2 1/2 hours. ThroughMay 24 at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets: $20-$45. Call 202-204-7741 or visit www.constellationtheatre.org.