Review of 'Sita Ram' at the Lookingglass Theatre
by Dan Zeff
The show is an adaptation of the classic Indian epic poem the "Ramayana," a 24,000-stanza narrative that dates back to about 500 B.C. The Lookingglass production has extracted key themes if the epic, added singing and dancing, and come up with one of the richest theatrical brews of recent seasons. I mean, how often does a theatergoer get to experience an Indian classic dance troupe, a 20 member children's chorus, a live orchestra, and a cluster of Hindu deities including a monkey god on one stage at one time?
The story follows the adventures of the Hindu god Vishnu and his goddess wife Lakshmi as they descend to earth as Rama and Sita to do battle with the evil demon king Ravana, ruler of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). On earth, neither deity remembers his or her divine persona, so they start from scratch as the human Rama and Sita. Rama wins Sita as his bride by bending the giant bow belonging to the god Rudra. But the jealousy of one of his father's wives leads to Rama's exile.
Meanwhile, Ravana abducts Sita and much of the rest of the story follows Rama's desperate search for his bride. He finally rescues her with the aid of the monkey god Hanuman and his followers. Ravana is destroyed, surprisingly much to the demon god's relief, and the couple live happily ever after.
The glories of the Lookingglass staging reside in its theatricality rather than its rather leisurely and overlong story. All the action is concentrated on a small stage in front of the audience. On either side the orchestra is separated into two units. The Chicago Children's Chorus (actually teenagers from their look on opening night) sings on bleachers on either side of the stage and also participates on stage and in the aisles. A group of Indian classical dancers plays a major role with their colorful costumes and exotic choreography.
There are numerous striking mime bits, like a dancer exhibiting remarkable body control as the great bow that Rama ultimately bends to win Sita for his wife. Or the chorus turning into the creatures of the world bringing bits of earth and wood to build a bridge across the water so Rama can reach his kidnapped bride on the island of Ceylon.
The score by David Kersnar (lyrics) and Jai Uttal (music) is an eclectic mix that shifts from rock to country to Broadway pop to classical Indian chants. The songs run from the passionate to the comic and occasionally to the unintelligible. If there is a criticism of the show it's the artlessness of some of the acting, occasionally inaudible, even in the intimate setting. Some of the performers are electrically amplified and some aren't. More need to be miked or learn to project better.
The production is a visual stunner, with its dramatic lighting by Chris Binder and countless costume changes designed by Mara Blumenfeld, who must be working with a most generous budget. There are even shadow puppets. The flow of movement and music and costumes and evocative lighting are continuously engrossing. If the story sometimes sags (the show could be 15 minutes shorter), the audience's eye and ear are never bored. The featured performers are Isaiah M. Robinson as Hanuman, the monkey king and narrator; the beautiful Pranidhi Varshney as Sita; Avilla Martin as Rama, and Anish Jethmalani in a terrific performance as the evil and arrogant but charismatic Ravana. Most of the supporting characters are playing by more than one actor, depending on the performance. I'm guessing that Abigail Droeger played the Little Monkey on opening night. Whoever she was, the tyke was a total charmer.
The dancing comes from the Natya Dance Theatre, with choreography by Krithika Rajagopalan. The dancing is disciplined, athletic, subtle and fascinating. The musical director is Josephine Lee, who neatly managed to keep her divided ensemble playing perfect accompaniment throughout the evening. A gold medal should be struck for director David Kersnar, who not only keeps the storyline clear but also maneuvers his collection of actors, singers, and dancers with a creativity and a spontaneous feeling that suggests hours of intense rehearsal.
The good news about "Sita Ram" is that it is a wonderfully imaginative and engaging production. The bad news is that the short run is sold out, though some standby tickets are sold two hours before each performance. The buzz on the show obviously grabbed playgoers who are intrigued by an engrossing cross-cultural entertainment experience served up in the inimitable Lookingglass style.
"Sita Ram" runs through April 2 at the Lookingglass Theatre, 821 North Michigan Ave. Performances are Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at 6:30 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. For ticket availability, call (312) 337-0665.
The show gets a rating of 3 1/2 stars.