In the North American premiere of Girish Karnad’s “The Fire and The Rain,” Constellation Theatre Company calls on its players and audience alike to reimagine a tale drawn from the epic “Mahabharata,” written more than 2,400 years ago. True to its mission, Constellation captures a thread of India’s ancient mythology in the music and movement of an elegantly choreographed ensemble cast. The result provides a pleasant dose of enlightenment, though more cultural than spiritual.
The play begins with a primal symphony of Tom Teasley’s drums, resonating with one another from the small depression he occupies in the middle of the stage. Teasley, a Constellation associate artist, three-time recipient of the Fulbright-Hayes grant and former Kennedy Center artist in residence, has traveled the world to collaborate with indigenous musicians, creating a unique fusion of cultural influences. For this production, his score blends 20 different ancient and modern instruments to seamlessly integrate the rhythmic structures of India with those of American jazz.
At first it seems strange that Teasley is so prominently featured at center stage, until it becomes clear that music is the soul of this production. This is not a play with background music, or even musical theater. It is storytelling in voice and motion to the persistent beat and notes of drums, flute and keyboard, driving and heightening the intensity of the narrative from the first moment to the last. The performers that surround Teasley are acting out a story, one that’s more poem than script, as he calls the tune.
Karnad has been at the forefront of India’s “theatre of roots” movement, which incorporates the country’s performance traditions into contemporary playwrighting. In Constellation founding artistic director Allison Arkell Stockman’s production, the play’s distinctions from Western drama are pronounced: Characters exude outsized passion and overwrought emotion as they issue emphatic declarations, gradually revealing a complex web of familial conflict and treachery that puts even the most outlandish soap opera plot to shame. Were it not for the persistent themes of love, lust, jealousy and violence — and its deep underpinnings of morality and spirituality — the play might seem tailored more for children than adults.
This lyrical narrative features a host of characters whose lives intertwine in complex and somewhat unpredictable ways. The hapless and exasperating Arvasu, played by the earnest and marvelously athletic Dallas Tolentino, ricochets from crisis to crisis, with only his love of Nittilai, the plucky Lynette Rathnam, as his constant compass. Arvasu is manipulated by his ambitious brother Paravasu, the commanding Michael Kevin Darnall, who does battle with most of the rest of the cast as well.
As their father, the bitter, tyrannical, incestuous Raibhya, Jonathan Church provides ample justification for his family’s dysfunction. And in the role of the adulterous Vishakha, Katy Carkuff is mesmerizing as a woman desperately trying to prevail over misguided emotions and an utterly powerless position in both society and her own home. The rest of the cast performs admirably as well, depicting players, priests, monsters and even gods that dwell between the most extraordinary mysticism and the most base human conditions.
The cast’s continual maneuvering plays out on A.J. Guban’s spare set, dressed with only evocative stands of bamboo and a smoldering ritual fire, which gives choreographer Kelly King and fight director Robb Hunter free rein to enliven every surface and corner. Clad in costume designer Kendra Rai’s abundantly rich and colorful apparel and masks, the actors themselves adorn the stage and are frequently transformed from one character into another.
Eventually it all begins to feel like so much spectacle forming a veneer over poor Arvasu’s exceptionally bad day, which manages to keep getting worse. But just when it seems there may be no redemption in this chronicle of unacceptable behavior, a moral dilemma unfolds. This is the lens that brings the futility of evil and the value of virtue into focus, as every good myth is bound to do.
The Fire and The Rain, at Source Theatre through May 24
Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.