The Karma Bums

Photo by Michael Lamont

You have to give credit to any theater like Fabulous Monsters and Cornerstone Theater Company that mounts a Los Angeles production of The Ramayana. Local audiences, after all, tend to view the classics of English literature, to say nothing of epic Sanskrit poems, the way a child confronts a plate of raw broccoli. (At a recent production of Ionesco’s compressed retelling of Macbeth, a woman sitting behind me complained that the program notes didn’t provide a "synopsis" of the Scottish play, and later, the house burst into applause at the end of Glamis’ "Tomorrow" soliloquy — thinking, when some candles were snuffed, that the show was over.) So it was with some awe that I watched Cornerstone’s production of The Ramayana float effortlessly across the David Henry Hwang’s stage, a timeless fable made timely by a group that for the past three years has been exploring the role of faith in storytelling.

Adapted by Shishir Kurup, this work, as Valmiki (Natch Narasimhan) admits at the top, is a shortened and speeded-up version tailored to hold the attention of American audiences. And so it does, combining shadow puppetry, live Indian music and contemporary references while retaining its ageless splendor. It’s believed that The Ramayana first appeared in the 3rd century B.C., although its most familiar form evolved in the 16th and 17th centuries. While much of Kurup’s dialogue strives to maintain a certain formal elegance, it also veers into modern conversational give-and-take, with comic results.

The story is similar to many other heroic myths. After self-exile from his father’s kingdom, Prince Rama (Sunkrish Bala) wanders the wilderness with his wife, Sita (Meena Serendib), and his brother, Lakshman (René Millán). On their journey, the three encounter Shurpanaka (Meena Kumari), a female demon smitten with Rama. After Lakshman cuts off Shurpanaka’s nose and ears (hey, it was 300 B.C.), she returns to the island kingdom of her brother Ravana (Sean T. Krishnan), the fearsome enslaver of gods. Payback is swift, and Sita is abducted and brought to Ravana, setting the stage for Rama to invade the demon island and win back his wife.

Duty, responsibility and insurgent humor mark Kurup’s telling of Rama’s odyssey — a story in which actions are immediately followed by fateful consequences. As a loyal son, the prince willingly abandons any claim to his father’s throne, and his instructions to Lakshman on how to deal with Shurpanaka directly lead to his wife’s abduction. Yet this evening is no lesson in blind obedience and tit-for-tat retribution. Instead, Kurup fashions a tragedy, viewed from more than one perspective, that is more avoidable than heroic. At almost any point, Ravana can escape Rama’s vengeance, but prefers to await the prince while futilely wooing Sita. Ravana is actually rather gentlemanly for a murderous demon: Instead of simply ravishing his captive, he prefers to win her over with charm and wit. On the other hand, Lakshman’s disfigurement of Shurpanaka, seen once as a funny shadow-puppet scene, is staged a second time as a gruesome rape.

This coexistence between shadow and matter, ambiguity and gore, humor and horror, is what distinguishes Kurup’s interpretation, inventively staged by director Juliette Carrillo. At one point Ravana presents Sita with a vision in which the future unfolds as a press conference. Now, disagreements about Vedic concepts of "the future" notwithstanding, this represents a jarring departure with the original texts, to say the least.

Rama and Lakshman are suddenly seen as crusaders who, having vanquished a foreign tyrant (a literally demonized one at that), now find themselves with no exit strategy. While the press conference, which recurs throughout this Ramayana, is an obvious poke in the ribs of current events, it never becomes an editorializing focus. Kurup also taunts us with racial and gender themes (the darker-skinned Indians who inhabit the southern end of the subcontinent are called soulless, and Rama makes his wife walk through fire to prove her purity to him), but only gently and never as an "issue" sledgehammer.

Likewise, the modern is not simply the problem but also the punch line in this show. There is a silly but funny scene in which Rama tells Lakshman of their need to forge an alliance with the monkey kingdom. "Uh, I don’t think they like to be called that," Rama’s brother delicately points out. There follows an argument about the socially sensitive term to use (Vanaras), although, Rama complains, he can’t keep up with all these self-descriptions — "Why can’t they pick one name and stick with it?" And later, when he hears the Vanaras actually calling themselves "monkeys," Lakshman points out that "It’s all right for them to call each other that."

Director Carrillo orchestrates Kurup’s story beneath set designer Christopher Acebo’s celestially painted proscenium, offset by a simple palm tree planted downstage. Ivy Chou costumes the 17-member ensemble in what might be called a sandals-and-combat-boots mix, melding India’s warrior past with our own warring present. Three musicians (Pial Hossain, Peter Jacobson and Sri Kesava) help guide the evening with melodies of lament and acceptance, while Lynn Jeffries’ puppet design complements the human action onstage. For all this, then, it was sad to see the theater only partly filled on the show’s second night. As Vishnu Dreams may not be an evening that completely transcends itself, but it is a powerful feat of theater that deserves to be seen — and in its present incarnation.

AS VISHNU DREAMS | By SHISHIR KURUP | Presented by Cornerstone Theater Company and East West Players at DAVID HENRY HWANG THEATER, 120 Judge John Aiso St., downtown Through December 5 | (213) 625-7000


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