January 18, 2020
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Setu On The Potomac

The Ramayana gets a very American makeover. Does the flavour survive the melting pot?

Setu On The Potomac
Photographs by Scott Suchman
Setu On The Potomac

It is Ramayana lite, a short and sassy interpretation of the ancient epic, which transports instantly, teaches variously and satisfies ultimately. Can the whole wisdom and vastness of the Ramayana be distilled into a two-hour, 15-minute play staged on a minimalist set inside a small theatre by a US theatre company? The answer is a most resounding ‘Yes’.

The Constellation Theater Company, a relatively new entrant on the scene but already an award-winner, has created a distinct buzz with The Ramayana, drawing mainstream American audiences and enjoying the benefits of the prevalent “India is cool” mood. The play has sold out on its second run, the critics are wowed and director Allison Stockman can’t stop smiling. Vivid, energetic and funny, it is a dramatic burst of an adventure, different but accessible. No time to catch your breath as action piles upon action, divinity collides with the dark side and a monkey army performs its duty. Sugreeva and his band even break into rap, leaping into the present. But the production’s periodic one-liner wisdom keeps audiences rooted in the experience of watching something sacred.

Ravana and his fellow demons. (Photograph by Scott Suchman)

The masks and costumes of the demons are artistic, yet edgy, with Soorpanakha and her clique sporting a modern-day slutty look. Jim Jorgensen as Ravana nails the difficult meld of evil and frivolity with ease. Resplendent in his silk achkan, it is, quite literally, a case of the devil wearing Prada. Misty Demory as Mandodari, Ravana’s wife, manages to convey her inherent goodness in the circle of evil as she pleads Sita’s case. Rama is played by Andreu Honeycutt, a blue-dyed African-American, who oddly enough roams the forest in silk, not a dhoti. Hanuman is touching and complex, especially when he stands at the ocean’s edge, slowly realising his power and potential to fly.

Stockman said when she was looking to mount an “ensemble play with innovative visual design”, which would harness the incredible music-making talents of Tom Teasley, a one-man band, she had not even heard of the Ramayana. But once someone suggested it, she found the story to be universal in its appeal. A student of comparative religion at Princeton, she was at home with Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism but Hinduism was wholly new to her.

Rama wounds and chastises Vali for feuding with Sugreeva. (Photograph by Scott Suchman)

“Rama is God in human form. He reminded me of Jesus,” says Stockman. “To me, the monkeys represented humanity and Rama brings out the best in them. The response (to the production) has been very positive and it is a powerful story.” She chose British playwright Peter Oswald’s adaptation, first performed by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 2001 to critical acclaim.

To condense ancient epics is to invite the possibility of committing blunders that are just as epic. Oswald’s The Ramayana is a smart and quick take, encapsulating all the essentials—devotion, duty, loyalty, courage. It picks up the story from Rama’s exile and ends with Sita’s agni pariksha. It simplifies, sometimes too much, but manages to convey the rich metaphors so comfortably familiar to most Indians. Some jarring changes do grate—Soorpanakha’s breasts, not her nose and ears, are cut off by Lakshmana. At times the language is offensive, especially in a scene when Ravana’s son Indrajeet describes, in graphic detail, imaginary encounters between Sita and his father to incite Lakshmana. In Oswald’s defence, he’s trying to create the starkly different worlds of gods and demons and the truth of both must be conveyed. Ravana brings out the dichotomy himself when, while wooing Sita, he asks: “Is Rama God? Then what is God? Not perfect. Since he created me, the great wrongdoer! So his own imperfection will destroy him! But what is God? A wish requiring proof. I prove myself each moment of the day by acting on my desires as they occur.”

The ocean within Hanuman dressed in exotic, not particularly Indian, attire. (Photographs by Scott Suchman)

Some Indian-Americans took exception to the play when it was first staged last year—to full houses—but comments on the theatre’s website have thankfully been civil. A particularly outraged member said Oswald had “humanised” Rama to such a degree that his divinity were lessened. It is true that when Ravana’s fellow demons are talking of Rama and Sita, they use the basest of imagery. At one point, a she-demon describes Rama’s insatiable appetite for women: “He needs a million every day, a dancing naked milky way.”

A feast for the senses, it is a passionate retelling that plays to full houses and is fostering interest in India’s cultural wealth.

But as Gaurav Gopalan, the Indian dramaturge who helped with the production, explains, such scenes—and there are only a couple—are effective precisely because they “do justice to the moment”. There is nothing tasteful about the kidnapping of Sita and what follows. “The cringe reaction is appropriate. We must remember that just as good thoughts empower good people, bad thoughts empower demons.” Gopalan, who has directed the Washington Shakespeare Company and is passionate about Indian culture, familiarised Stockman and the cast with the Ramayana, its message and nuances. He says he didn’t like the script at first but it gradually “grew” on him.

“Oswald has taken some liberties but he has tried to get at the essence. If it were done the way we do it in India, the cultural references would not convey and the metaphors won’t translate in an effective manner,” Gopalan says. Though there have been pockets of criticism from the community, Indian-Americans who ventured to see it, by and large, felt the adaptation met the tough standards of interpreting a layered Hindu epic into a language westerners could understand while retaining the ‘Hindu-ness’, if you will. To complain, as some have, about there being no Indian actors is like saying only a Levantine should essay Jesus in any Indian production.

Stockman’s production is a feast for both the mind and the eyes, moving effortlessly on the rails of live music by Teasley, who conjures up a medley of sounds, including Indian beats, on an array of instruments. Sitting calmly in a corner, Teasley creates the winds, the ocean, the battle and the drama, all aiding to transport the audience to another place and another time. It’s clear why he was the recepient of the prestigious Helen Hayes award this year for outstanding sound design for The Ramayana.

On opening night, an American professor was heard telling Stockman that she should now tackle the Mahabharata. While that implies India is merely a passing fad, the suggestion represents a genuine interest in its cultural wealth.

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