Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Masterful Production of The Ramayana

Also see Richard's review of Suddenly Last Summer

The A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts program class of 2003 is currently presenting an ambitious production of the Hindu epic The Ramayana at the Zeum Theatre in the Yerba Buena Gardens Center in San Francisco. Written by St. Valmiki in 4th Century BCE, The Ramayana is a sacred poem based on several Hindu legends. Writer/director Ruben Polendo has adapted the poem into a theatrical form which meant delving into hundreds of stories in one of the longest poems ever written. It is 16 times longer than The Odyssey and The Iliad combined. Polendo had a difficult task in getting this into a 2 and half hour production so he focuses on the journey of Rama and Sita within the epic.

The playwright/director fuses some stories together, and some of the characters on stage are amalgams of multiple characters from the poem. He also translates it into a modern story and uses western and nonwestern theater traditions to give the play a decisively contemporary flavor.

The Ramayana has helped shape the Hindu world view by using the predicaments and choices of the characters to examine such central Hindu beliefs as karma, dharma and samara. The story is about the durable love between Prince Rama and the astonishing Princess Sita, following the young couple's adventures and misadventures as they encounter powerful gods, warriors from distant lands, deceitful demons and a whole host of incredible creatures after being exiled from their kingdom.

The Ramayana was first workshopped with Theater Mitu in New York in 2000. There was a second workshop at Bard College in Annanadale, New York, and the piece received a reading with Theater Mitu at the New York Theatre Workshop in the winter of 2002. The New York Times called Polendo a "rising stage director" and classified the work as "outside the boundaries of the standard western drama, which makes for an exciting, fresh theater-going experience." This is the first full length production of the epic piece. Ruben Polendo, who is the artistic director of Theater Mitu, is the director of the current production and has done a splendid job of presenting 17 very talented young actors playing various roles in this presentation.

John Patrick Higgins as Prince Rama has a beautifully trained theater voice and gives a great range of acting in this piece. Candice McKoy as Princess Sita also gives a polished performance. The rest of cast are very good playing various roles.

Director Polendo uses Indonesian shadow theater to tell of certain adventures of the Prince and Princess. This is beautifully accomplished by Mr. Polendo along with Scott Spahr, Ryan Mueller, Jef Evans and Miranda Hoffman. The costumes and masks by Miranda Hoffman give credence to the poem. The scenic and lighting design are stunning for the production.

These very talented actors are graduating from one of the top programs in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report and the New York Times. This program is the first theater training program in the country not affiliated with a college or university, accredited to award the master of fine arts degree. In a few short weeks, these actors will launch their careers with professional showcases in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, joining the ranks of their fellow A.C.T. graduates, who are at work throughout the country on stage, film and television.

The Ramayana runs through Saturday March 15 at the Zeum Theatre in the Yerba Buena Gardens at Fourth and Howard Street, San Francisco. Tickets can be purchased in advance at the Geary Theatre Box Office, 405 Geary Street or phone number 415-749-2228 or online at Cash only tickets can also be purchased at the door on the night of the performance.

Photo: Ken Friedman

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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