SAN JOSE, Calif. — Gods, demi-gods, demons, giant ogres, birds and monkeys garbed in splendid bejeweled Indian wear with gilded headdresses and crowns created a vivid spectacle at the opening weekend of the 36th annual production of the epic “Ramayana!” presented here by the students of Mount Madonna School.
This portrayal of the mythological epic at San Jose’s Mexican Heritage Theater June 6, 7 and 8 was a wonderful amalgam of dance, music and drama.
An agile cast of more than 200 students accompanied by a choir and musicians brought this lyrical and engaging over 2,600-year old story to life, taking the audience — among whom were many Indian Americans — from the kingdom of Ayodhya to the isle of Lanka.
The show, which means to capture the essence of this ancient Indian epic, opens with a narration by Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati and a traditional invocation to Goddess Saraswati.
It revolves around the life and times of Rama, the beloved prince of Ayodhya, beginning with his marriage ceremony with princess Sita, his banishment from the kingdom on the eve of his enthronement, and his trials as he endures exile and the kidnapping of his wife Sita.
The play moves seamlessly from scene to scene including prince Rama and Lakshmana’s encounters with many powerful characters, including the vulture king Jatayu and the monkey god Hanuman who aid in their search.
After countering many demon tricks and fighting arduous battles including one with a ferocious smoke emitting dragon, the play climaxes with Sita’s heroic rescue by Rama by defeating the ten-headed demon king of Lanka, Ravana, and all celebrating the glory of the Ramayana.
This year the play was co-directed by MountMadonnaSchool alumni Erika Rosendale and Trevor Forry. Both have been assistants to longtime director Sampad Martin Kachuck, who is away this semester on a sabbatical.
Mounting a multi-character and multi-location show is daunting, admitted Forry. “Definitely it’s challenging, as I have never been in charge of so many kids before and never directed a show before,” he told India-West. But being alumni helped, he said.
He acknowledged that both the co-directors were very excited and honored to do it, but at the same time were very nervous as it was a huge project to take on.
“Initially, we weren’t very sure how it was going to work out without having the main director there but the kids were so willing to work with us. They came to us with ideas, their energy was through the roof and they exceeded our expectations,” he added.
For a little less than four hours, the show employed theatrical techniques with a peppering of modern humor.
Really an ensemble piece, each character was full of energy and seemed fully immersed in the role, displaying immense versatility. Daniel Clifton as Rama, Roger Hooker as Ravana and Bri Heldt as princess Sita rendered strong performances. Some stand-outs were Cassie Caborn and Pedro Aguirre in their comedic roles as Bonehead and Hooknose, Ravana’s court jesters; Sophie Kamkar as queen Mandodri and Ali Alhomaidi as Jatayu, the vulture king.
Casting for this multilayered epic is almost as arduous as the Ramayana itself. All characters are played by the preschool to 12th grade students.
The multi stage auditions for the high school students, which last 2-3 weeks, start in February and the younger ones are precast depending on the grade.
The preschool students gradually move from forest animal scenes and work their way through various small parts as wedding dancers, singers, palace gymnasts, belly dancers, monkeys, and demons to individual roles in their high school years.
“I was a demon in freshman year, a bear from the monkey tribe in sophomore year, King Janak in junior school. I am just so happy to be a big part of such a beautiful show,” Jay Ward, who played Lord Shiva, told India-West.
“I have always wanted this part since I started out in third grade and I am really excited as this was my dream role,” said Jenny Turk, who played Goddess Parvati, Shiva’s consort.
Embodying the divine has been a magical experience for the students.
“It’s very interesting seeing the development of the character throughout the entire play,” said Daniel Clifton who played prince Rama. “Starting off as a prince and being exiled and how that has an effect on you and then losing your wife and bringing her back after all the adventure, it’s pretty amazing seeing his characteristics,” said Clifton, who has been a part of the show since preschool.
One of the high points of the production is the music, which fuses western elements with traditional Indian music.
The monkey army was clearly the audience’s favorite and the act where it displays its power and determination singing and dancing to electric guitars generated much applause.
This professional grade all-student extravaganza appealed to fresh audiences along with devoted fans.
“I am coming here for the first time because I want my daughter to see this. I grew up in India and my parents used to take me to watch Ramayana. My daughter has not seen anything like this before so it’s a perfect opportunity for her,” said Ramneek, who came from Danville to watch the show.
“The thing that blows my mind is that somewhere in California, this is being done for the last 35 years. As a school production it is just remarkable. The kids’ performances along with the setup and costumes are just amazing,” said Nalin, a San Jose native who came to the show with friends and family.
The show is a labor of love for the crew, hundreds of faculty, staff, parents and volunteers who help put this spectacular production together.