Which would you rather be – a god, a demon, or a monkey? In Constellation Theatre Company’s production of Indian epic The Ramayana, the answer is definitely a monkey. I haven’t seen actors having so much fun on stage in ages. At times, maybe too much fun. Mounting a multi-character multi-location multi-verse is daunting, and I admire director Allison Arkell Stockman for attacking something so challenging even larger companies might balk. Constellation’s mission is to produce “epic, ensemble theatre” with “heightened physicality” – and The Ramayana is definitely all that. When it wavers, it’s the fault of being too generous, of allowing too many focal points and not streamlining enough. But it’s still an enjoyable night out, playing now thru June 6 at Source Theater.
The Ramayana is one of two of the most beloved and sacred texts of India (the other, The Mahabharata, was also put to stage in Peter Brook’s famous version some twenty years ago, see the film sometime to get a taste of how fantastic that theatrical experience was). It details the trials of Lord Rama as he endures exile and the kidnapping of his wife Sita by the demon Ravana. Rama is the incarnation of Vishnu and represents the ideal king on earth, his wife Sita is the incarnation of Vishnu’s wife Lakshmi and therefore the ideal queenly wife. Actually, every character in The Ramayana is an archetype of the ideal way to behave – from loyal brother Lakshman to devoted monkey Hanuman.
With so many characters travelling through many worlds, it’s vital to have a backbone and here Stockman has picked the best – live music composed and performed by percussionist Tom Teasley. From playing the doumbek to scat singing, he pulls the audience along as a kind of musical narrator, and it’s easily the second most riveting performance of the evening, grounding time and place far more effectively than any set design.
The actors are clearly envigorated by Teasley’s musical support, and no where is that more obvious than with those delightfully crazy monkeys, highlighted by a stellar standout performance by Joe Brack. If Brack doesn’t get a Helen Hayes nomination for his work as Hanuman, there is no theatrical justice in this town.