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Timeless tale brought to vivid life in ACT’s ‘Ramayana’

  • Written by Deborah Stone
The well-known religious tale, “Ramayana,” is a saga of epic proportions, near and dear to the hearts of millions of Hindus worldwide.

ACT Theatre has created a new stage version of the famed 2,500-year-old legend for Seattle audiences, which is currently receiving much attention. Under the deft direction of Sheila Daniels and Kurt Beattie, this beloved story comes to life in a kaleidoscope of color and compelling drama. Sumptuously staged, it’s a feast for the senses with eye-popping costumes, creative sets and re-imagined environments that transport audiences to a world full of humans, gods, demons, talking monkeys and giants.

“This may be one of the most ambitious shows ACT has ever staged,” commented Beattie, “and the artistic process has been very rewarding.”

It’s been a labor of love for Beattie and Daniels, who worked in conjunction with a large ensemble of collaborators from various artistic disciplines. Together they shaped this classic piece of literature into a stage play using cultural and performance influences from all over the world. More than 70 Seattle artists contributed to the two-year-long process through readings, creative collaborations and workshops. The result is a unique spectacle that entertains on all levels and despite its nearly three-hour length, manages to be engrossing from beginning to end.

For those unfamiliar with the story, “Ramayana” details the adventures and tribulations of Rama, an exiled divine young prince on a quest to rescue his beautiful wife from an evil king.

Using age-old story-theater techniques that combine narration, innovative puppetry, dynamic choreography and a host of clever effects, a gifted cast of 14 actors and dancers takes audiences on a mythical and memorable journey.The production pares down the 24,000-verse poem to its essentials – Rama’s remarkable boyhood and romancing of Sita, his exile with Sita and his brother Lakshman, Sita’s abduction by Ravana, the malevolent king, her subsequent rescue by Rama and Hanuman the monkey god and her final test to become Rama’s accepted and fully recognized queen.

As Rama, Rafael Untalan makes the perfect hero. He’s strong, virtuous and altruistic, showing a depth of understanding of humanity that’s wise beyond his years as he grapples with the play’s moral dilemmas.

Khanh Doan’s Sita is spirited and effervescent, with an infectious charm, yet when the need warrants, she can be regal and assuredly poised in her actions.

She, like Rama, is the embodiment of love and empathy, capable of forgiveness of even those who have been the most hurtful in their behavior. In true protagonist fashion, the pair confronts numerous obstacles and struggles along the way, yet they emerge heroic in the end.

Doan is also very effective in the role of Manthara, the scheming hunchback.

Tim Gouran, as Rama’s brother and sidekick, makes full use of his lines, giving his character a humorous bent and providing the show some comic levity.

Also aiding in this department is Brandon O’Neill as Hanuman, the wisecracking, shrewd monkey.

Most of the cast members do double duty and some take on three roles, such as the ever-talented Anne Allgood and Todd Jefferson Moore.

John Farrage shows up as a narrating sage, but then later is seen as the lascivious and ruthless Ravana.

Jim Gall also does a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde turn, going from a royal King Dasartha to a scary demon.

Of special note is young Akhi Vadari, who sings and dances with sweet, innocent joy as Rama’s alter-ego and pint-size assistant.

Dramatic events are cleverly orchestrated with a minimal of props.

Flowing fabric, ropes and bamboo sticks, for example, are effectively used to create forests, rooms, birds, vines and more.

A wonderful score that is a blend of Indian with gamelan music further helps to bring audiences into this magical world. ACT’s “Ramayana” is an action-packed adventure and love story that captures the imagination, while staying true to the essence of the philosophy of this timeless tale.

Ramayana” runs through November 11 at ACT Theatre in Seattle. For ticket information: (206) 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org.

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