COURTESY KARIS LO / UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII-MANOA
Kevin DeBell is surrounded by Caroline Berman, right, Elizabeth Santaniello, front, and Carolyn Wilt in Ernst Lab Theatre's production of "Ravanayana."
New take on old Hindu tale is a success
THE ERNST LAB Theatre at the University of Hawaii is by definition a place where student actors, directors, playwrights and choreographers can experiment with original material and unconventional ideas. No experiment in cross-cultural theater has worked better here in the last 15 years than director/playwright M.A. Richard's ambitious reworking of "The Ramayana," perhaps the ultimate Hindu epic of good versus evil, into "The Ravanayana," a film-noir-style musical in which morality is relative.
"The Ravanayana," presented by the UH-Manoa Department of Theatre and Dance at Ernst Lab Theatre. Continues at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $10, with discounts for seniors, military, students and UH staff. Call: 956-7655|
In the original story, the demon king Ravana kidnaps Sita, beloved wife of Rama. Rama and Hanuman, king of the monkeys, lead an army to rescue Sita and kill the demons. Richard tells a very different story. He keeps the overtly Indian elements to a minimum, and, with the exception of a mysterious unseen narrator, his characters speak in the "hard-boiled" argot of Sam Spade and Mike Hammer.
Brandon Sutherlin stars as Dash Ravan, the tough-talking head of a crime family that operates out of Club Dandanka, a nightclub with a floor show that Jack Cione would be proud of. Ravan, his gangsters and the girls aren't concerned at first when they hear that Ramos Rama and his brother, Lex Mann, are in town, but things get tense fast after Rama and Mann cut the face of Sue Panaka, Ravan's top dancer. Ravan, meanwhile, finds himself irresistibly attracted to a mysterious cabaret singer, one Cynthia Sita, even though rumor has it that she has ties to Rama's organization.
Richard's script captures the ambiance of '40s Hollywood crime films perfectly, and Sutherlin does an excellent take on Humphrey Bogart without being obvious.
Stephanie Kong (Mary Chao) stands out as Club Dandanka's sexiest chanteuse; she is also the only singer able to consistently project over musical director Scott Millichamp's excellent cabaret orchestra. Alan F. Hoyt (Bobby Shawn) adds a veneer of dark humor as the club emcee, and Tiana Quinn DeBell (Sue Panaka) gives a show-stopping performance as the star of one of choreographer Maryann L. Peterson's floor show numbers.
Elizabeth Santaniello (Greta), Caroline Berman (Glenda) and Carolyn Wilt (Glinda) star in another dramatic show sequence, and Marissa Pilger (Indira Khara) emerges as a significance presence with her portrayal as Ravan's top hit man.
Travis Rose (Rama) and Roberto Angel (Mann) make a good impression as the thuggish outsiders trying to take over Ravan's operation. Demetrius Guerrero (Hans Newman) rolls with the punches convincingly in several effectively choreographed fights.
Cameron Gage (Cynthia Sita) plays Ravan's mysterious love interest as a cold cipher. It is never clear what it is about her that Ravan finds so irresistible. On the other hand, the nature of Sita's relationship with Rama remains enigmatic as well.
Will Connor (Tommy Rakshasa) leads the Imperial Imps orchestra through extremely odd but interesting arrangements of pop standards. Kong's rendition of "Fever" is one of the most memorable. Much of Richard's choreographed violence is staged amid the performances of Club Dandanka's Little Devils dancers -- this juxtaposition adds an interesting element of surrealism.
Richard uses lighting effects and video clips to suggest changes of locale. Alexis Hsin Chen's costumes incorporate just enough hints of Indian influence to establish the Bollywood connection.
No knowledge of the original epic is necessary to enjoy Richard's two-act tale of evil versus evil. The more one knows, however, the more impressive his work becomes. Unlike many lab-theater projects, this isn't "Macbeth" recycled in kabuki costumes, a vaudeville review in which the performers wear Indonesian masks, or a heavy-handed exercise in twisting an established work into political correctness.
Lab theater shows don't come better than this!