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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Hinduism meets cabaret in 'Ravanayana'

By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Special to The Advertiser

Caroline Berman, Elizabeth Santaniello, and Carolyn Wilt, clockwise from left, surround Kevin Debell, as nightclub strongarm Deuce.

Photo by Karis Lo

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8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Earle Ernst Lab Theatre, University of Hawai'i-Manoa

$10 general; $9 seniors, military, UH faculty/staff and students; $3 UH-Manoa students.


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Can you find a soft spot for a really bad guy who's been the villain in a story more than 2,000 years old?

M A Richard can. In "The Ravanayana," his adaptation of an ancient Hindu story, Richard lets the anti-hero tell his story from the dark side with a film noir cabaret setting.

In Hindu mythology, Ravana was the demon king of what is now Sri Lanka. Depicted with 10 heads, all of them blue, he was strong, evil and a notorious rapist.

So powerful was Ravana that the god Vishnu had to take on human form, as the avatar Rama, to slay him an event celebrated as the triumph of good over evil and told in the seven-chapter, 24,000-verse epic poem "Ramayana."

But this is the villain's story, and the title change is only the first of many twists that Richard uses to tell it. Gone are 10 blue heads. Ravana is now a gangster operating a jazz club.

But it isn't necessary to be familiar with the original, in which Ravana kidnaps Rama's wife, Sita, and, after many adventures, Rama rescues her. The play "does not require any foreknowledge of its root myth," says Richard, "Simply enjoy it."

In this play, Cynthia Sita (Cameron Gage) auditions for a spot as a torch singer in a nightclub owned by Dash Ravan (Brandon Sutherlin). When Ramos Rama (Travis Rose) finally dispatches Ravan in a "Bonnie and Clyde" hail of bullets, it's the culmination of a war between gangs.

While the adaptation offers plenty of creative production elements, it never illuminates its central character and forces viewers to spend much of the evening puzzling out what's going on and who these people are.

We get the nightclub image immediately from the jazz band and parade of dancers. But take out the entr'actes and the play dissolves into a vague narrative of violence and betrayal where the best stuff is in pantomime.

While physical violence permeates the play, it's best expressed in a silhouetted beating sequence in a style more dance than fight choreography.

The dancing generally works; the vocals range from adequate to better left unsung.

The overall tone of "Ravanayana" is that of a bunch of college kids pretending to be sultry and tough. When Ravan, riddled by hot lead, sinks to his knees for his final line, "I wish I knew. Wish ... knew. Vishnu," we wonder whether Richard has finally over-compromised his source.