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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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