Nov. 15, 2004
Is East West Players and Cornerstone Collaboration Heretical or Just Plain Heavy-Handed?
by Rob Kendt
"This pious piece of propaganda" is not how most Indians think of the Ramayana, one of two national epic tales (the other is the Mahabharata) that mythologize an ancient history of conquest and conflict into vast supernatural struggles. But that's how it's pegged by Ravana (Sean T. Krishnan), the unlikely hero of As Vishnu Dreams, Shishir Kurup's new adaptation of the Ramayana, at East West Players' David Henry Hwang through Dec. 5.
We can see Ravana's point: An army of North Indians from Ayodha, led by the purportedly divine Rama (Sunkrish Bala), is gathering to invade Ravana's supposedly demonic domain, the island of Lanka, for the mere crime of abducting Rama's chaste bride Sita (Meena Serendib). Ravana objects not only to this Northern aggression but to its self-aggrandizing moral dimension, which he sees as a pretty mask for ugly motives. What's coming to Lanka, he warns, is an "occupying force that threatens our cultural sovereignty," an "imperial power" that must be resisted.
When the Ayodhans do invade, they "shock" the island's inhabitants "into a state of awe." Somehow the weapons of Rama and his brother Lakshman (Rene Millan) even manage to pollute Lankan streams. (Are their arrows dipped in depleted uranium?) But this is a "liberation," Rama proclaims hollowly at a press conference. We would hardly blink if, in Kurup's adaptation, assorted Lankan "insurgents" were then rounded up and thrown into a prison to be tortured and interrogated without due process.
Grafting Iraq onto this ancient Indian tale is in itself not very interesting--indeed, Kurup hammers the analogies a little too insistently, as if we're in danger of missing them. But at its best, Kurup's adaptation--a collaboration between East West Players and Cornerstone Theater Company as part of its "faith-based" cycle of plays--successfully complicates this familiar fairy tale with tragic elements reminiscent of the Greeks or Shakespeare. Deaths have implications; retribution is never a clean exchange; fate is an excuse more than an inevitability.
And the show's humanization of a storied demon king is not a whitewash; as with John Gardner's Grendel, which retold Beowulf from the monster's point of view, As Vishnu Dreams doesn't absolve Ravana so much as it introduces a bracing ambiguity into the theology of evil.
That's the good news. Kurup's revision, unfortunately, turns Rama into a figure of considerably less dimension--an arrogant straw man who barely even understands the divine justification for his violence. If Kurup's Ravana at times evokes Macbeth or King Lear's vengeful, accursed Edmund, this bland Rama is an uninspiring puppet.
Far more enchanting are the brilliant shadow puppets designed by Lynn Jeffries, who enact key portions of the tale with an infectiously irreverent tone reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python segments. And director Juliette Carrillo's production is itself a heroic effort, alternating stark storybook staging and stylized movement (choreography by Naila Azad) for as much variety as possible. Christopher Acebo's set, framed by a huge painting of a dreaming Vishnu, is a gorgeous geometric diorama in primary colors, which seems to shift shape artfully under Geoff Korf and Jessica Trundy's lighting. I was less persuaded by Ivy Chou's costuming, an unconvincing mix of traditional, contemporary, and generic tribal.
Though a beguilingly impassive narrator (Natch Narasimhan) assures us that the tale will be told "in a time frame that a Western audience can endure," the show's tiring second act is a drawn-out roundelay of flash-forward, exposition and speechifying confrontation. As has been the case with some of his previous scripts for Cornerstone Theater Company, Kurup doesn't know when to stop; he buries his prodigious wit and often startling insights in a welter of wordplay and a surfeit of signifiers.
This overkill probably doesn't fully explain why the second act audience on opening night was about a third smaller than the first act's. Perhaps Indian Americans aren't keen to embrace such a pointed subversion of a beloved myth--a founding narrative of Hinduism, in fact. Though it's ostensibly part of Cornerstone's ongoing faith-based cycle of plays, As Vishnu Dreams may simply be too hectoring and heterodox for the faithful.