I've seen a number of interpretations of the Ramayana over the years. But never have I experienced one as visually and aurally sumptuous as this one. Writer-director Robert A. Prior of the Fabulous Monsters Performance Group creates a lively and athletic spectacle set to a pulsating electronic score. A mixture of techno, bhangra, and synthesized pop, the music features original compositions by Alex Spurkel, Amani vs. Teapot, Andrew Yeater, Bentheogen, Ben Milstein, DJ Brian, DJ Treavor, Jason Saunders, Martin St. Pierre, The Mutaytor, Rara Avis, and Shaman's Dream. Added to the mix is a live performance by musician Abhiman Kaushal on the tabla, a small hand drum; his lightning-fast fingers create a variety of tones and sounds on the instrument and help to evoke an atmosphere that's at once contemporary and mythic.
A minor drawback in the sound design is the voiceover component: Aside from two onstage narrators (Tim Ottman and Alexandra Saalik), all of the dialogue is pre-recorded. Although the performers occasionally lip-synch the lines, they more often use movement phrases to demonstrate their meaning. At times, this works well; at other times, it seems kind of cheesy. The fact that the prerecorded voices are often reminiscent of those heard in a Saturday morning cartoon doesn't help matters.
But no cartoon ever looked like this. Choreographed by co-creator Stephen Hues, the company of muscular and versatile performers combine dance and acrobatics in a sexy and sensual exhibition. (Some of the stunts had audience members clapping in appreciation.) The costumes, designed by Prior with Lisa Leighton, enhance the production's visual splendor; since the cast of characters include gods, demons, and monkey warriors, the outfits are often marvelously inventive. Video projections designed by Yo Suzuki also form a crucial component of the show's overall look, as does the lighting of Jerry Browning and Guy Carden.
At the center of the action is Rich Welmers as Rama, Vishnu's human incarnation. Although his voiceover is handled by Avo Soltes, Welmers has a calm and centered stage presence that is nevertheless full of theatrical vitality. Anahata, as Rama's wife Sita, is similarly compelling, but Carlos Madrid Mora as Rama's brother Lakshman is the real standout. Perhaps it's because he does his own voiceover, but his movement seems more integrated with the prerecorded words; his gestures, body language, and facial expressions go further in capturing both the meaning and emotions of the text than those of any other performer.
This is by no means meant to indicate that the rest of the cast is deficient. Desiree V. Castro excels in a number of parts but most particularly as the hunchbacked servant woman Mantura and the demon queen Mandodari. Will Watkins is deliciously evil as Ravana; in a part that could easily slide into melodrama, he commands the stage with a virile, well-calibrated performance. There are some disturbingly incestuous undertones in Ravana's relationship with his son Indrajit (Aurelian Roulin) and, for that matter, in Indrajit's relationship with his mother Mandodari. Roulin turns in a fine performance as well, his chiseled frame and kinetic physicality giving his portrayal a dangerous yet sensuous edge. In fact, the only actor who seems a bit off is Alexandra Saalik, who narrates the show and plays a number of small roles: She lacks the dynamism of the majority of the company and appears ill at ease onstage.
Though I wish that that there were more such moments here, the production is a great achievement overall. Despite Prior's updating of the visual and musical language of the story, it remains faithful to the original myth of the Ramayana. The production is neither a deconstruction of the text nor a campy take on a classic. Based on the last Fabulous Monsters production I saw -- a hilarious drag rendition of Hedda Gabler titled Speed-Hedda -- I was prepared for the latter, but Ramayana 2K3 is decidedly different in both tone and approach to its source material. Stylish and sexy, it's a successful adaptation of a classic myth that retains the tale's epic qualities while giving it a broader-based appeal.