ACT Theatre this week will debut its ambitious stage version of "The Ramayana," based on an ancient religious epic that is a spiritual touchstone for Hindus around the world.
On a full moon night years ago, I sat on the grounds of a Hindu temple in a small village. I watched spellbound, as the colorful adventures of the aristocratic gods Rama and Sita, and Rama’s monkey-faced devotee, Hanuman, unfurled before me.
As the elaborately dressed and made-up performers moved gracefully through their dance drama, the Balinese villagers of all ages seated around me knew exactly what would happen next. They had been watching dance, musical, operatic and shadow puppet versions of this sacred, action-packed Hindu epic throughout their lives.
The performance took place in Bali, Indonesia. With different costuming, moves and music, it might have been the same story performed that night in India, or Thailand, or Laos.
And now in Seattle.
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This week, ACT Theatre unveils its world premiere, long-in-the-making theater piece “The Ramayana,” based on the same, seminal Hindu holy book often dramatized in other cultures.
ACT is staking an unusually large production budget (about $500,000) on the work. Two noted Seattle playwrights, Yussef El Guindi and Stephanie Timm, spent two years scripting a new English-language adaptation of the Ramayana, with considerable input from the show’s two directors: Sheila Daniels and ACT artistic head Kurt Beattie.
A cast of 14 actors, and dozens of other theater artists (some members of ACT’s new Affiliated Artists program) have contributed to the project. Scholars, and more than 30 “ambassadors” from Seattle’s growing South Asian and Southeast Asian communities also are participating in outreach efforts including an adjunct lecture series and other events.
“The Ramayana” is an enormous, risky undertaking for ACT. Beattie is deeply committed to this ambitious artistic reach for a Seattle theater company that, despite fiscal challenges, continues to stretch the boundaries of its mission.
“The world is ever more available to us, and theater needs to reflect a broader cultural reality,” Beattie explains. “The Ramayana is hugely significant to millions of people around the world, and many people living in Seattle.”
Another attraction: The Ramayana is a heroic saga of theatrical proportions — a spectacle loaded with romance, challenges, battles and humor. And in Beattie’s mind, it’s a great candidate for what he calls a “hive mind” project — an ambitious piece collaboratively concocted by a large ensemble.
And for the audience? “Anyone who has read ‘The Iliad’ or ‘The Odyssey’ will get this show,” asserts Mott Greene, a retired University of Puget Sound professor of science and values, and an Asian literature expert and a longtime adviser on the production.
“The Ramayana has a great hero, dynastic struggles,” says Greene. “It has love and loss, all the romantic conventions. And it is still by far the most popular book in India, with many modern versions and constant references to it in religious and popular culture.
“Think Shakespeare’s plays or all the Harry Potter books, things that people read over and over, and everyone has their favorite characters.”
But the Ramayana is also distinct from such epics as “The Iliad” in critical ways. It is very much an Eastern legend, reflecting a mindset and belief system different from the most cherished works of Western literature.
The Ramayana’s original Sanskrit text of more than 24,000 verses has long been credited to the ancient Indian poet Valmiki. (It’s dated roughly between 100-500 B.C., and was followed later by a second great Hindu saga, “The Mahabharata.”)
Divided into seven sections, it recounts the heroic, eventful journey of the illustrious deity Prince Rama of Ayodhya, who marries his beautiful, beloved Sita, then is exiled with her by his treacherous stepmother.
Cutting to the chase: After Sita is abducted by the rival monarch Ravana, Rama and Hanuman lead an army of monkeys and bears to search the forest for her.
After furious battles, and other adventures, Rama vanquishes Ravana and returns with Sita to Ayodhya. Together they will rule, as queen and king, in a virtuous reign that is a golden age for all humanity.
“The core of the story is really the Eastern concept of dharma, of choosing right action,” says Beattie. “It’s about, how can you be the best person you can be in this world?”
In excerpts and as a whole, the Ramayana is a durable resource that’s been illuminated, parsed, enacted and re-enacted over centuries. Its religious teachings have been appropriated as a political tool, recently by Thai and Indonesian regimes trying to sway minds with propagandistic interpretations of the tale. In 2011, a provocative theater rendition in New Delhi explored the role of women in Indian society.
Lengthy TV miniseries and marathon live productions have tried to capture the entire multifaceted story for a current audience. According to co-author El Guindi, an early draft of the ACT script “was the whole thing, to be performed over two nights.”
But for practical and artistic reasons, the ACT team decided to telescope the plot into, says Beattie, “a simplified, very spare narrative of the core story.” Drawn from various English translations of the original text, it is conveyed in three hours with dialogue, music, puppetry, stage combat, dance (choreographed by Maureen Whiting in the Bhangra style of India) and other storytelling techniques.
Matthew Smucker’s sets and the costumes by Melanie Burgess are based on classical Indian designs, with the actors garbed in dhotis, saris and vivid masks. Brendan Patrick Hogan’s sound score is a world-music mélange. The cast (including, among others, Anne Allgood, Brandon O’Neill and Tikka Sears) are directed to perform with epic simplicity.
The work has been through many in-house script readings and workshops. “They helped us to establish the right aesthetic and tone,” says El Guindi.
It may still be challenging, however, for American audiences to fully comprehend what Khanh Doan , who plays Sita, identifies as the “social rules from an ancient Hindu point of view.”
Doan points to an incident where Sita walks through fire to prove she has not betrayed her husband, Rama — a symbolic test of fidelity “we want to present in a nonjudgmental way.”
There are other customs and beliefs embedded in the story that clash with Western social ideals — for instance, the concept of a society rigidly divided into preordained castes.
“There are basic differences in the Indian world and our world that you have to make clear,” says Greene. “In the Judeo-Christian world everyone is the same in the sight of God, but not in Hindu society. Our most reflexive, deepest sense of human equality is challenged by the Ramayana.”
Contends El Guindi, “I think it can be a good thing to get outside your own preconceptions … and to view the world beyond your own experience.”
For Beattie, embarking on such a demanding project with fellow artists has been exhilarating, “a wonderful journey.” If all goes well, he hopes “we can bring it back in the future, and continue to develop it.”
But dipping into another culture, to appropriate one of its revered myths, is tricky. Might ACT run the risk of offending those who cherish the Ramayana as a holy text?
Beattie says ACT, while employing modern techniques, stays faithful to the original story — in the incidents portrayed, the aura of antiquity, the essence.
Advises Greene, who created a “cheat sheet” on the Ramayana for the ACT ensemble, and wrote the informative program notes: “The more a story is loved, the more you have to be careful with it. Kurt has been very careful, and for perspective, ACT will offer lectures about the ways the story is performed and interpreted in Asia.”
Even there, the interpretations have ranged widely — from the Bali’s enduring Wayang Kulit puppet shows to digital animated features and Bollywood musical spectacles.
That’s what great epics do. They keep on giving.
Misha Berson: email@example.com