It is extraordinary that Constellation Theatre Company continues to seek out and present works of artistry that would likely be unknown to us. And Constellation’s willingness to take financial risks with rarely produced fare is a major business decision that can have significant financial impacts. So kudos to Constellation for producing The Fire and The Rain by Girish Karnad. It has been a while since Constellation’s production of the classic The Ramayana, but the wait was well worth it.
With the inspired direction from Allison Arkell Stockman, The Fire and The Rain by Girish Karnad (b 1938), Constellation is bringing audiences a spectacle full of myths, ritual, taboos, danger, rebellion, dancing, and acrobatics. All is underscored with live music from Helen Hayes Award recipient, Tom Teasley.
Based upon the ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata, The Fire and The Rain gives off the pleasure of enlightenment to anyone willing to step away from the usual tried and true and become immersed in a vivid, lively production full of unexpected characters and ways of the world.
The Fire and The Rain centers on universal human emotions: love, jealousy, betrayal, deceit, and sacrifice. In this play there are also many references to the caste system of India. There are heroes, both male and female, each of whom is torn between their sense of moral and spiritual righteousness and duty, as well as conflicts between the sacred world and the profane secular world. There is even a wandering soul seeking absolution, so that he can move on to the next steps in what has become of his existence.
There are plenty of twists and turns through the daily lives of a community dealing with a seven-year drought that they seek to end with both prayers, the help of a fire ritual and a band of actors not unlike those in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The overall production is top-notch. The scenic design is a wonder of bamboo stalks making for a forest audience-left, and areas with ramps and risers for the action to take place. The stage floor is immense with a popcorn plaster like look, as if it were parched earth. There is a small pit area, where Tom Teasley performs and a most volcanic looking fire pit complete with rising steam and an orange glow, not unlike Mauna Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Costuming by Kendar Rai is a profusion of saffron robes, bright colored saris and wraps, along with golden jewelry and jingling bracelets. Also, the (uncredited) hair design and wigs are visual markers of time and place.
The original music performed live by Tom Teasley places the audience in the culture and people of India., and it did set me into a mood for the story at hand. In his one-man music-band, Teasley uses flutes, percussion, keyboard, shakers, his beat-box voicing and plenty of other instruments to strike, hit or blow into, to draw the audience into the production. His tapping, drumming fingers become another actor. Of note, Teasley has cut a CD entitled Dreams of India with the score he created for The Fire and the Rain. Information is available here.
The Fire and Rain has a large cast that comes alive not so much from nuanced characterizations as from their overall ensemble presentation of humans, Gods and archetypes, along with spiffy masked actors.
Spotlights shine upon Dallas Tolentino as Arvasu and Lynette Rathnam as Nittilai, two star-crossed lovers from different castes. The wide-eyed, totally decent, ready-to-plunge-forward-at-every-turn Tolentino plays a character from the higher Braham caste. Throughout the play he journeys straight forward looking to find his true calling. Along the way he falls in love with Rathnam’s character who is from a lower hunter’s caste. Rathman gives her character a heart of pure gold, along with a delightful sassy street-wise approach that gives off halogen heat. Ultimately, she pays for the love she shares with Tolentino. It is then upon the shoulders of Tolentino’ Arvasu to make a spin of the earth’s time, as life goes on for some and not for others.
Katy Carkuff, as Vishakha, is a wife too long alone, who responds to the physical presence of love with a man not her husband. Carkuff is earthy and real. She speaks of herself in a way that can only be described as beautifully feminine and lusty. But she pays for her forbidden love.
Ashley Ivey, as a traveling acting troupe’s manager, brings humanity and order out of the chaos of jealousy between family members. He gives up a deep affecting inner honesty.
Ryan Andrew Mitchell is a joyous delight, as one seeking deliverance from a spell that makes him feel as if he is nothing.
Shawn Jain shines in various roles, including a Brahmin in 3 movement sequences around the fire ritual. He plays the Hunter Nittilai’s Husband who participates in her murder, and most importantly he appears as the God Indra at the end of the play to offers Arvasu whatever he wants. He can bring dead souls back to life. Ultimately he starts the rain after a seven year drought.
Jonathan Lee Taylor and Michael Kevin Darnall are two men both in love with Carkuff’s Vishakhas. They are men of a certain type: out for themselves and caring less for the cost to others.
DeJeanette Horne plays very well the secular King, who must deal with the conundrum of secular power and the spiritual needs of his people as well as needing rain to survive.
One other note, Tolentino is a master tumbler and a sinuous dancer. When called upon Ivey, he matches Tolentino in both dancing and tumbling quite nicely. And he smiles through it all. Kudos to dance and movement choreographer Kelly King.
Based upon the ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata, The Fire and The Rain is a wonderful excursion from a modern playwright from India. It is a cultural treasure to escape into. It will engage, entertain, educate and enlighten as it spins a tale and introduces us to different ways to view the world.
For those willing to step away from the usual tried and true, to become immersed in a vivid, lively production full of unexpected characters and ways of the world, Constellation once again prepares a full course treat. It’s right at 14th & U Street, one of the new sweet spots in DC for dinner and a walk. There will be plenty to talk about after the final curtain.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
The Fire and the Rain plays through May 24, 2015 at Constellation Theatre Company, performing at Source – 1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 204-7741, or purchase them online.
Note: Recommended for audiences aged 13 and up. Constellation asks that a parent or guardian accompany any child under 13.
Reviewer’s Note: In a metropolitan area that strives to be world class, it is vital to present audiences with performing arts that are beyond the usual Western canon. Challenging works of theater from other cultural references and points of view are essential and present a wide world-view to locals and travelers alike. Clearly, the DC metropolitan area prides itself and has open arms to international visitors who may want to visit beyond the museums and international students in local colleges and universities who may want to go beyond their campus gates. My applause to Constellation Theatre Company.