By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Ramayana,” A Contemporary Theatre’s adaptation of the Indian epic going back almost 2,000 years, runs roughly three hours, including intermissions. It tells a story of great loves, courage, battles against villains, and sacrifices, all interlaced with a warm helping of humor.
The saga opens and closes, with the singing of one young boy, Akhi Vadari. Over the course of the saga, and between his songs, young Vadari dons one costume after another, at one point personifying an arrow shot from a mighty bow. His constant participation accentuates a certain through-line in the wide-spanning narrative. No matter what goes on at center stage, from fighting to lovers soothing each other, he keeps a watch from the edge of the action.
This production of “Ramayana” is written by Yussef El Guindi and Stephanie Timm. It concentrates on Prince Rama (Rafael Untalan) and his beautiful bride Sita (Khanh Doan), who are both meant to sit on the throne vacated by Rama’s father Dasartha (Jim Gall).
But the couple find themselves exiled to a magical and dangerous forest, accompanied only by Rama’s faithful brother Lakshmana (Tim Gouran). Their quests bring them to join forces with Hanuman (Brandon O’Neill), the flamboyant leader of a tribe of monkeys.
The direction, by Shelia Daniels and Kurt Beattie, puts the action at the center of the stage, brightly decorated with Indian symbols courtesy of scenic designer Matthew Smucker. Actors run in and out of four entrances and exits. They occasionally come and go via the aisles by the audience’s seats — so plan on keeping your seat once you claim it.
The three leads work together to stay on top of the relentless pace, with admirable results. As Prince Rama, Rafael Untalan must present a character that fights and wins, but is also modest and accepting, sometimes to what Westerners would consider a fault. He is always, even in extreme situations, willing to consider his opponent’s point of view and provide his opponent with a modicum of respect.
Khanh Doan’s Sita proves equally fiery as Untalan, never failing to remind her onstage husband that she too boasts an impeccable lineage and deserves respect. Her loyalty to her husband never wavers, even when his loyalty to her seems to falter. Doan channels her passion into vivid speeches and set pieces, but she can also move as fluidly as any other actor or dancer in the ensemble.
As Lakshmana, Tim Gouran faces the tough task of always playing behind, and often walking behind, the two leads. He admires his brother Rama and indeed insists on following Rama into danger. The adversities faced by the trio, both together and separately, tests his resolve and his perspective, but never saps his inner strength.
A special mention goes to Brandon O’Neill, who plays the monkey man, Hanuman. Rushing into the narrative one-third of the way through, he immediately commands the audience’s undivided attention. He’s undeniably a self-serving rascal, but he brings wit, charm, and a winning physicality to the role, whether he’s dancing, bouncing, bounding, or dangling from a rope dropped from the ceiling.
The production certainly features a great deal of warfare, both personal and political. But it always explains everyone’s point of view, vilifying no one, not even the worst of the worst. Each character, “Ramayana” says, has a story. Everyone has a reason to believe and act as they do, and that should always be taken into consideration, that may be its most lasting lesson.
“Ramayana” plays through Sunday, Nov. 11th, at A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), 700 Union Street at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center. For tickets, showtimes, and other information, call 206-292-7676 or visit www.acttheatre.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.