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BWW Reviews: THE FIRE AND THE RAIN Blossoms at Constellation Theatre

Indian epics, while vastly entertaining and surprisingly down-to-earth, can be confusing. Let's just get that out there, for starters. When you look at the Mahabharata, Hinduism's great epic poem, you find what must be thousands of royal families, lower-class folk, gods and demi-gods, all of them in the grips of some passion or other. Andbecause the Mahabharata goes on at length, it can be hard to keep track of them all, let alone track their motives.

Contemporary Indian playwright Girish Karnad has the ability to cut through that confusing mass of material, and his adaptation The Fire and the Rain is now receiving a spectacular North American premiere at Constellation Theatre. In the grand tradition of Greek tragedy, where the ancient poets took liberties with traditional myth, Karnad has taken a chapter from the Mahabharata's long saga and given it his own personal stamp. As directed by Allison Arkell Stockman you are guaranteed a fascinating spectacle that, although complex, can be truly rewarding.

The Fire and the Rain centers on the family of the great Brahmin, Raibhya, and his two sons-the savvy Paravasu and his naïve younger brother, Arvasu. As Brahmins the family is required to conduct all sacred rituals, and the play begins in the midst of a long drought, which Paravasu has trying to end. For seven years, he has lived at a local temple leading an elaborate rite designed to bring back the rain-leaving his young wife, Vishakha, to fend for herself at home. Epic absences like this can lead, of course, to epic consequences, and sure enough Vishakha is compromised by an old lover, Yavakri, who has a Brahmin's mystical powers but uses them to evil ends.

Meanwhile young Arvasu has fallen in love with Nittilai, a girl from a lower-caste family, and is determined to marry her even if it means disgrace. Arvasu has fallen so far in the social order that at one point he even - horror of horrors - offers to join an acting troupe, which is on their way to entertain Paravahu and the other priests as part of the rain ritual. Much mayhem ensues, and in true Indian fashion the climax is one that makes perfect sense when viewed from a Hindu perspective, but which likely will mystify western audiences.

Michael Kevin Darnall gives us a cold, calculating Paravahu, whose calm exterior belies his darker motives. Katy Carkuff gives a fine turn as his long-suffering wife Vishakha, with Jonathan Lee Taylor a riveting, conniving Yavakri. It will come as no surprise that the romantic couple at the center of the story, Arvasu and Nittilai, are both beautiful to look at and beautifully played; Dallas Tolentino, familiar to audiences from his work at Synetic, is thoroughly endearing as Arvasu, and Lynette Rathnam's Nittilai is intensely passionate. A bearded Jonathon Church gives us a convincing Raibhya but doubles as a fellow temple Brahmin in other scenes. Perhaps the most memorable supporting role here, however, is Ryan Andrew Mitchell's Brahma Rakshasa, the brawny, bearded spirit who haunts and hunts down characters at the Brahmins' command.

Costume Kendra Rai has created a dazzling array of costumes for the elites, with saffron robes for the temple priests; but her outfit for Brahma Rakshasa-two parts Mahabharata to one part Hell's Angel-nearly brings down the house. A. J. Guban has created a spare, natural setting with bamboo stalks and a suggestion of a Banyan tree forest, and makes very effective use of the Source Warehouse's lighting grid to capture the many moods and narrative shifts here.

At the center of the action (literally) sits composer and musician Tom Teasley, whose eclectic instrumentation and talent for improvisation give us that wonderful, otherworldly feel. A recording of his work for the show is available for purchase here, but there is simply no substitute for seeing him interact with the cast live, adding his own narrative and emotional touches as the story unfolds.

This being a tale from India, there must also be dance-and choreographer Kelly King has made the most of Tolentino's talents here; Arvasu's audition for the acting troupe, performed before the Actor-Manager (the charming Ashley Ivey), is a joy and one of the highlights of this production.

The Fire and the Rain is a perfect accompaniment to our slowly-blossoming Spring season, colorful and bracing like the natural world it evokes.

Production Photo: Dallas Tolentino as Arvasu and Lynette Rathnam as Nittalai. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Performances are April 23-May 24 at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW, Washington DC.

Tickets can be ordered by calling 202-204-7741, or at:

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