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Originally published Friday, October 19, 2012 at 6:34 PM

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'Ramayana' at ACT: vivid dramatization of the Hindu epic

A review of the staged retelling of the sacred Hindu epic "Ramayana," at ACT Theatre in Seattle through Nov. 11.

Seattle Times theater critic

'Ramayana'

Through Nov. 11 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $15-$55 (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org). Show-related community programs include "Many Arrows from Rama's Bow," an exhibit of paintings at Seattle Asian Art Museum (through Dec. 2), and the lecture "Many Sitas" (4 p.m. Nov. 3 at ACT Theatre).
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Of all the great religious epics, the Ramayana is one of the most enduring and durable, an action-packed saga dear to millions of Hindus around the world, a fable of romance and adventure passed from age to age through the millennia.

ACT Theatre has staked a budget of about $500,000, and stepped into a new realm of spiritual literature, by creating a new stage version of the story — the latest of many, from Bollywood movies to Balinese puppet versions — for Seattle audiences.

The appealing and accessible production, staged with fluid simplicity by Kurt Beattie and Sheila Daniels, means to capture the essence of the epic and its importance to South and Southeast Asian cultures as transmitted from generation to generation.

The show opens and ends with a twinkly old Indian sage (played by John Farrage) imparting the wisdom of the ancient Sanskrit poem to a wide-eyed little boy.

And when the child (the delightful young charmer Akhi Vadari) sings verses in praise of the hero Rama, in India's Telugu language, his lilting voice is golden.

Over three hours, ACT employs story-theater techniques that are probably as old as the Ramayana itself, with a good peppering of modern humor and accents akin to the work of contemporary myth-stagers like Mary Zimmerman ("Metamorphoses").

An agile cast of 14 actors and dancers transform in a blink into an array of humans, gods, demigods, birds, monkeys and demons, and are garbed in splendid jewel-toned Indian wear and thatch-topped monkey suits by one of our best costume designers, Melanie Taylor Burgess.

The script by Seattle writers Yussef El Guindi and Stephanie Timm fuses dialogue and narration well, particularly in the lightning-fast first act. Their abridged version of a far more elaborate yarn centers on the god Vishnu, Prince Rama (strapping, handsome Rafael Untalan), his romance with lovely, feisty Sita (Khanh Doan), and his triumph over the demon king, Ravana (Farrage).

There is poetry here, but it's the moments of heightened theatricality that create a vivid spectacle — as when characters drop down from the sky on bungee chords, battle with pole and saber, or square off atop rolling bamboo staircases.

An outsize puppet monster with glowing red eyes and devouring paws appears. A fierce blaze is conjured with diaphanous drapes and scarlet light. And in Brendan Patrick Hogan's well-chosen world-music sound design, a chattering simian war chorus of the Kecak (the Balinese "Ramayana Monkey Chant") ignites a battle.

The artistic team for the two-year project has been scrupulous in crafting the narrative into an essential heroic quest for love, honor and goodness. (Someone who grew up revering the Ramayana advised me that ACT takes few big liberties, and respectfully sticks to a widely accepted version of events.)

What emerges is suitable for all ages, and is a drama of family and dynastic clashes and unifications, similar to the goings-on in Shakespeare's plays, the Old Testament and Greek myths.

Elderly King Dasartha (Jim Gall) wants as his successor favorite son Rama, whose purity of heart and physical prowess are beloved by the people. Humble Rama agrees, but his stepmother (Cheyenne Casebier) intervenes, and torments the king into making his heir her more reluctant son, Prince Bharata (Ray Tagavilla), while sending away Rama.

It is a measure of Rama's spiritual virtue that he accepts his exile, even after it is revoked, as his fate, or his divine duty according to dharma — the Eastern religious concept of natural law.

On his hero's journey, Rama must vanquish evil to save Sita, who is kidnapped by lascivious Ravana. A wily, wisecracking monkey, Hanuman (terrific Brandon O'Neill), joins in with a fierce monkey army. And comes out right in the end — though a spate of sexual jealousy proves Rama is not exempt from mortal shortcomings.

There are places where the narrative gets sluggish and needs tightening: In the bombastic rages of Ravana, and rather tedious backstory of monkey-world rivalries and squabbles.

But ACT's voyage into world myth is achieved with integrity by all mentioned, and such other big contributors as lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, choreographer Maureen Whiting and expert utility players Todd Jefferson Moore and Anne Allgood.

It would have been great to see more professional artists of Indian background involved. But as a vivid universal expression with a multicultural cast, "Ramayana" should have deservedly wide appeal.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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