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Raving with the Ramayana

The sacred Hindu myth gets a very modern interpretation with an exotic musical score.

June 06, 2004|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

Before "The Wizard of Oz," "Star Wars" and "The Sopranos," there was the Ramayana. The mother of all good versus evil tales, this ancient Hindu myth charts the story of Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who, after being banished to the forest, does battle with the uber-nasty Ravana, winning back the girl of his dreams, Sita.

Asian countries from India and Cambodia to Thailand and Japan have their own interpretations, many of which average double-digit running times. There's even an Indian TV production that clocks in at 47 hours. Add to that list the Ramayana written and directed by Robert A. Prior. Cofounder of the 10-year-old performance troupe Fabulous Monsters, Prior, assisted by choreographer Stephen Hues, has fashioned "Ramayana 2K4," an "electronica dance drama" opening Saturday at North Hollywood's El Portal Theater.

"I've read about 25 different adaptations from different cultures," Prior explains, "and I see it as a love story. I wanted it to be very strongly about Rama and Sita, having the relationship be a sensual one as well as a spiritual one. We've attempted to be faithful to the basic ancient myth while contemporizing it in the telling."

Contemporizing it seems an understatement: With its exotic musical score -- a live tabla player, Abihman Kaushal, enhances the 14-composer technotrack -- its blend of acrobatics, shadow puppets and choreographic bling-bling, not to mention voice-over dialogue, 200 splashy costumes, arty videos and trippy lighting, this Ramayana has the feel of, well, a sacred rave.

But at the myth's core is its ability to connect with people. "The compelling power of the story," says Judy Mitoma, director of the UCLA Center for Intercultural Performance, "is that, although it's a Hindu epic, it is also found in non-Hindu countries -- the Philippines, for example. That it created a foundational mythology on which so much of these civilizations have built their ethos and their values and philosophy, speaks to the story's strength."

Mitoma likens the Ramayana to Shakespeare. "What's fascinating about the story is that it goes to deeper and eternal questions: There's the loyalty of a husband and wife, and the desire and jealousy of people who have no control of themselves, like Ravana. In what appears to be a simple story, we actually have a play with so many fundamental combinations of human relationships that every person struggles with."

For Prior, who began crafting a version as early as 1997 for the Common Ground Festival, his journey has been nearly as eventful as Rama's: In late 2002 and early 2003, he and Hues (who came aboard several years ago), mounted a pair of 2 1/2-hour productions at Highways Performance Space and at Gascon Center Theatre.

The extravaganza proved a hit, with Times dance critic Lewis Segal calling it "loving [with] an endearing sweetness of spirit." Buoyed by audience and critical responses, the company went to New York. There the drama, its cast swollen to 21 with a crew of 14 technicians, gained fire, garnering five Drama Desk nominations for its "2K3" staging at La Mama E.T.C. last winter.

But with the trend to pop-culturize the traditional (think Baz Luhrmann's "La Boheme" and the spreading of the Bollywood aesthetic), the notion that Prior is treading on hallowed ground could raise hackles. After all, it's been said that nary a day goes by that the Ramayana isn't being performed somewhere in the world. But one with stilt-walkers, belly dancing and a fishnet-and-thong-wearing temptress?

Babubhai Gandh, a practicing Hindu, is president of Vivekananad Yoga Research Institute. Gandh, who is also a board member of the Sanatan Dharma Temple in Norwalk, is against tampering with the sacred story. "The Ramayana has given inspiration to millions of people," he says. "It is a divine thing and should be presented as divine. When you modernize it, or represent it in some loose or mundane way, you dilute it. It's like pure water you mix with gutter or sewage water."

Others are more open to interpretation. Ramaa Bharadvaj, who has performed the myth in the classical South Indian dance idiom, bharata natyam, with her locally based Angahara Dance Ensemble, saw Prior's version.

"Because I'm traditional in looking at people who take religious mythology and change it into something else, I would have been offended if it was disrespectful," she says. "But it was kind of an international Ramayana and I liked it. It was fun and totally funky."

The core of the story

Deciding what elements of the story to include was key for Prior, who became interested in Eastern culture after seeing Peter Brooks' "Mahabharata" in 1986. He has since become somewhat obsessed with the Ramayana, checking out different productions when and wherever he could, including in Bali and Java. He opted for keeping things simple.

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