BWW Reviews: RAMAYANA at ACT A Stirring Fable You MUST Experience
On the chance that you only read the first few sentences of my review of "Ramayana", currently playing at ACT, let me just say this right at the start. Go see this show! Hire the babysitter, arrive early (to catch the awesome Indian bazaar in the lobby), and prepare yourself for one of the most glorious and magical evenings I've had in the theater for quite awhile as ACT Theatre presents an exquisite and epic tale that mesmerizes from beginning to end.
Based on the Hindu fable of the same name, Ramayana (which translates to Rama's Journey) follows the young Prince Rama (Rafael Untalan) as he enlists the assistance of an army of monkey's to battle the demon God Ravana in order to rescue his beautiful bride, Sita (Khanh Doan). Now when I say this is an epic tale I mean it as the show is 2 hours and 45 minutes long with two intermissions and I never once checked my watch as the show just flies by. Much of the credit for that is owed to the incredible authors Yussef El Guindi and Stephanie Timm who have taken this beloved tale and infused it with modern dialog and humor without ever cheapening the beauty of the story. I was absolutely floored by the ease and flow with which they managed to present this huge tale.
But then I also have to give credit to the incredible co-directors of the piece Sheila Daniels and Kurt Beattie who have not only assembled a stellar cast rife with the cream of the crop of local talent but also shown themselves as consummate storytellers by keeping the action and intent clipping along with some amazingly innovative yet simple staging. And I must mention the astonishing backstage designers whose praises I cannot sing enough. Matthew Smucker has created a simplistic yet gorgeous world for the performers that completely transports you to another land. And his set is only accentuated with the outstandingly stunning costumes from Melanie Burgess. And accentuating the characters more were some wonderful puppet characters created by Greg Carter. Lighting and sound designers Mary Louise Geiger and Brendan Patrick Hogan only serve to heighten this glorious world with their work. And fight choreographer Robert Macdougall brings the pain with his athletic stunts and of course the evening is completed with the marvelous choreography and Bollywood-esque numbers of Maureen Whiting.
If it sounds like I'm gushing over this show, I am and for good reason. But the gushing will now continue as I make my way over to the astounding ensemble cast. Each one has their moments in the show to shine with their many characters and shine they do. Of course Untalan is grand as the broad shouldered hero but takes the icon beyond into a realm of honest beauty. And Doan as his stunning bride wows as she takes the damsel in distress and inhabits her with strength and assurance. And both make wonderful counterparts for each other as well as for the rest of the ensemble as they play straight man to the cornucopia of outrageous characters to come. We'd be here all day if I tried to expound on all the magnificent characters there were to be had so we'll just focus on a few of them. Anne Allgood manages both heartbreaking honesty as Rama's Mother Kausalya and delicious sinister sensuality as the demon Soorpanaka. Cheyenne Casebier stuns as the manipulated and duplicitous Queen Kaikeyi determined to secure her son Bharata, the grounded and real Ray Tagavilla, to the throne. John Farrage, Todd Jefferson Moore and Jim Gall are each marvelous as they disappear into the various kings and peasants, demons and Gods throughout the evening. Tim Gouran manages a kind of playfulness mixed with rage as Rama's hot headed brother Lakshmana. Richard Nguyen Sloniker infuses his demonic Vibishna with a subdued sympathy. And I must mention little Akhi Vadari who not only kept the childlike spirit of the show alive as he wove in and out of scenes but also provided the two perfect bookends to the show with his singing of the Ramayana tale.
But I have to call out my favorite performer of the show, Brandon O'Neill as Hanuman the monkey. I have never seen O'Neill better than he was here. His character and spirit were infectious and engaging and a complete joy to watch. From the moment he opened his mouth this monkey instantly became everyone's best friend and, you could tell, Rama's loyal compatriot.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is one of those all around perfect shows. Every aspect demands attention and needs to be seen by as wide an audience as they can get. And as this is a show suitable for any age, you might not even need to get a babysitter. I could easily see this production transfer right onto a New York Off-Broadway stage (it would lose some of it's intimacy on Broadway) and I think it would absolutely shine. I said it before and I will say it again. Go see this show! I just cannot stress that sentiment enough.
"Ramayana" plays at ACT through November 11th. For tickets or information contact the ACT box office at 206-292-7676 or visit them online at www.acttheatre,org.
Photo credits: Chris Bennion