By Molly Cox
It’s been a long time since I saw a show that kept me on the edge of my seat, but the combination of a time-tested, tragic tale and the sensory spectacle that is The Fire and The Rain by the Constellation Theatre Company has revived my child-like enthusiasm for theatre. Inspired by the Indian epic The Mahabharata, The Fire and the Rain was written by celebrated Indian playwright Girish Karnad. He brought to life the essence of a dramatic story told centuries before Shakespeare was born. The North American premiere of this play is directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, performed at the Source theater.
The themes in The Fire and the Rain are as old as time- sacrificing for the one you love, the search for God, the greed for power, and family betrayal. At the center of the story are two innocents- the star crossed lovers Arvasu (Dallas Tolentino) and Nittilai (Lynette Rathnam). Though born to the highest caste (Brahmin), Arvasu is desperately in love with and determined to marry Nittilai, who is of a lower caste (Hunter). Arvasu has an artistic, gentle nature, and wants nothing more than to be an actor. Unfortunately, he is victimized throughout the story. He is blamed for murders he didn’t commit, and then (to add insult to injury) he has to cremate the all the dead bodies. His brother Paravasu (Michael Kevin Darnall) is the head priest of the seven-year-long fire ritual, which ironically is supposed to bring rain to the parched countryside. Although he seems mild mannered and humble at first, Paravasu is really a psycho who is trying gain immortality by any means necessary. Arvasu and Paravasu’s father (Jonathon Church) is also power hungry, and his bitter hatred for pretty much everyone he meets brings the whole family to despair.
The plot takes too many twists and turns to summarize here, but each character is developed brilliantly. Though all of the actors were well suited to their characters, Ryan Andrew Mitchell as the Brahma Rakshasa (a sort of demon zombie who in life was a wicked Brahmin) was particularly delightful. When he first appears, the Brahma Rakshasa is pretty damn scary, but Mitchell humanizes him, even makes him hilarious. Another minor character who shines is the Actor Manager (Ashley Ivey), who has fallen on hard times and desperately wants to perform during the fire sacrifice so that he can afford to feed his starving children. The audience is moved by the sense of desperation from the characters throughout the play, who plead with the Hindu god Indra to save them from the destruction of the drought, and from the of cruelty of one another.
In the end, instead of the many powerful priests or the king, the god Indra (Shawn Jain) appears to the humble Arvasu. Indra causes the rains return (literally, it rains in the theater). In the end, purity of heart and bravery are what move the god to help his devotees, not rituals and prestige. Although the rains return, the story does not exactly have a happy ending; the beautiful and courageous Nittilai pays the ultimate price for saving her beloved Arvasu. Love hurts.
The set design for the show is a genius use of limited space. Using only a beige color palette of bamboo poles and multi-level floor that looks like bone-dry earth, you do get the sense of being in a drought. When Arvasu dazzles the audience with his dance and acrobatic skills, the stage seems larger than it truly is. The low lighting highlights a ceremonial fire pit that glows and emits smoke. The play begins with live music by Tom Teasley, who performs as a one-man band throughout the show from a small pit in the very center of the stage. Far from a distraction, the actors work around him expertly, and you can easily forget he’s even there. Teasley sets the mood for each scene, and draws the audience in like a snake charmer.
Bursting with magic and drama, this violent fairy tale provides an escape from the mundane and the expected.
The Fire and the Rain runs through May 24 at Source Theatre.