ACT Theater's adaptation of the Sanskrit epic Ramayana has been in the works for two years with two playwrights, two directors, more than 70 artists, and a half-million-dollar investment. That's large stakes for a regional theater, and it has generated both anticipation and trepidation. Just days before it opened, Nevada-based Hindu leader Rajan Zed issued a press release expressing "concern" but "hope" that ACT's Ramayana would be respectful of the "sacred scripture." And audiences wondered how ACT would distill the vast action-adventure among gods, demons, people, and monkey-men—who take breaks for long dialogues about ethics—into a three-hour stage play.
The answer was to start small and keep it accessible. This Ramayana begins with a charming, slender boy (Akhi Vadari) singing a few lines from the text before it eases, actor by actor, into the story about a hero-prince Rama (the muscular Rafael Untalan) who was conceived, fell in love with Sita (Khanh Doan), was eventually banished, won a war with the demon-king Ravana, and returned to his throne.
Even at the three-hour mark, the production feels elegantly spare and direct in its language (by writers Yussef El Guindi and Stephanie Timm) and staging (by directors Kurt Beattie and Sheila Daniels). Instead of reaching for Bollywood-style lavishness, the design team relies on simple fabric, bamboo, vivid costumes by Melanie Burgess, and a few well-timed visual surprises (puppets, flash paper, actors rappelling onto the stage). This intelligent restraint lets the 14 actors do the work of evoking, say, an entire kingdom in flames or Rama negotiating with the ocean. The two-year workshop process has paid off with an unusually grounded and cohesive ensemble and a few highlight performances, including Brandon O'Neill as the scampering, boisterous monkey-hero Hanuman. ACT is already known for its popular annual staging of A Christmas Carol—Ramayana could become a similar tradition for Diwali.