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Divine visions of human folly

Times Staff Writer

In a world in which wars are waged against “evildoers,” it isn’t much of a stretch to label the other side “great Satans” or “demons.”

Rakshasas, anyone? That’s what the demons are called in “The Ramayana,” the world’s oldest recorded epic.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 18, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 18, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
“The Ramayana” -- In a review of the play “As Vishnu Dreams” in Friday’s Calendar section, the ancient tale “The Ramayana” was described as the world’s oldest recorded epic. Most scholars grant that distinction to the “Epic of Gilgamesh.”

Yet in “As Vishnu Dreams,” Bombay-born Shishir Kurup humanizes the characters on both sides of the “Ramayana” struggle, creating a gripping interpretation that affirms the wisdom of the more recent Walt Kelly line, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

“As Vishnu Dreams” achieves thoughtful, funny and finally poignant dimensions in Juliette Carrillo’s staging of Kurup’s script. It’s a co-production by Cornerstone Theater Company and East West Players, at East West’s home in Little Tokyo.

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Kurup doesn’t remove the spiritual context from the ancient tale. This is still a world where miracles happen. At the top of Christopher Acebo’s set is an image of the slumbering Vishnu, who is supposedly dreaming the entire story, and later we meet the four-headed Brahma (Natch Narasimhan). But Brahma is reluctant to intervene.

In the original, the dashing Prince Rama is an incarnation of Vishnu himself. But this version’s Rama (Sunkrish Bala) is thrust into situations in which he feels more like Prince Hamlet, impotent and confused over what his next step should be.

The original story is largely intact. Rama’s wife Sita (Meena Serendib) is kidnapped from their rural exile by Ravana (Sean T. Krishnan), the rakshasa who rules the island of Lanka. Ravana is angry at the mutilation of his sister Shurpanaka (Meena Kumari) by Rama’s brother Lakshman (Rene Millan).

Rama and Lakshman enlist the aid of the monkey king Sugriva (Ogie Zulueta) and his daring associate Hanuman (Francis Reyes). Sugriva first asks for their assistance in vanquishing his usurping brother (Berkeley Sanjay). After that mission is accomplished, they unite to rescue Sita and conquer Lanka.

But the story isn’t told in strict chronological order. The play begins with a scene that is initially conjured up by Ravana as a warning to the already captured Sita. Even if she is rescued, he points out, her purity will be suspect. He pictures a modern-style press conference in which a reporter raises the question that the public is whispering: Did Sita and Ravana have sex?

The script returns to this moment at several junctures. Despite the scene’s modern trappings, it’s in accord with the original story -- Sita had to disprove such suspicions after she was back home.

Another plot development, however, breaks sharply with the ancient text. (Kurup wrote a note to critics asking that this twist not be divulged; suffice to say that it further reinforces the Walt Kelly maxim.)

Other signs of updating include some of the idioms (“holy cow”) and an amusing dialogue in which Rama and Lakshman agonize over the politically correct way to refer to the monkeys.

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Ravana is painted more sympathetically than in most versions of this story, but two characters in his household -- his wife (Page Leong) and his brother (Peter Howard) -- provide a running critique of his deeply nuanced personality.

Ivy Chou’s costumes and live musical accompaniment by Chris Webb and Paul Livingstone are firmly rooted in tradition. And parts of the story are told through the ancient and enchanting art of shadow puppetry, with puppets designed by Lynn Jeffries.

Unlike the Fabulous Monsters’ version of the story, seen this year at El Portal Theatre, this production is not extensively danced. But Naila Azad choreographed a number that kicks off the second act with an especially funny turn for Howard, momentarily playing the god Indra, and Krishnan’s Ravana tries to impress Sita with a charmingly goofy disco routine.

Carrillo’s blending of the story’s far-flung elements is masterful. The cast has no weak links. “As Vishnu Dreams” is wide-awake theater.

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‘As Vishnu Dreams’

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Where: David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., L.A.

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When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. No matinee this Saturday, dark Thanksgiving Day.

Ends: Dec. 5

Price: $23 to $58

Contact: (213) 625-7000

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Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes


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