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Flash Review 2, 12-5: Vibrant & Disappointing Ramayana
A Spectacle with Somewhat Lackluster Performances

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2000 Rosa Mei

Staging the Ramayana is a rather daunting task. Think of compressing "Gone with the Wind" into a 90-minute stage show. Kudos to Potri Ranka Manis for stepping up to the plate. In creating "Rajah Mangandiri," an adaptation of the Ramayana, she not only had to create a spectacle to honor an oral tradition from the Southern Philippines, she also played cultural anthropologist, mining the royal court dances of the Maranao Sultanate and integrating them with the complex martial art of Silat. Start with dancers as birds, fish, butterflies, and ocean trekking boats. Add in a few fertility celebrations, hanging gongs and polychordal bamboo zithers and you have a production as complex and multi-faceted as any Mozart symphony. Potri Ranka Manis's latest take on the Ramayana (seen this past Sunday at La Mama) for Kinding Sindaw, her company of Filipino dancers and martial artists, is both vibrant and disappointing. While the festive gamelan music and ornate, jewel-toned costumes create a fine sense of spectacle, the somewhat lackluster performances by the troupe dampen the high spirit of the evening.

The Ramayana, an Indian epic composed in the fifth century B.C., is a great story, a colorful tale of love, valor and virtue. A demon king abducts Rama's wife Sita. Rama is an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Rama enlists the support of a monkey army to get Sita back and when he does, she is exiled by the community, which doubts her chastity. She undergoes an ordeal of fire to prove her virtue and survives. The sultanate kingdom is united and they all live happily ever after. In Potri Ranka Manis's adaptation of the Ramayana, Sita becomes the strong female heroine, indeed the centerpiece of the story, a s/hero for all times. Interesting, since the Ramayana is often portrayed as an epic which exalts in submissive females, its heroine Sita seen as the perfect wife, always obedient to her husband Rama while undergoing exile and banishment. Indeed, here it is Sita who ends up stabbing the evil demon Malawana, dealing him his final blow.

Playing the Oracle, Potri Ranka Manis delivers the most finely nuanced performance of the evening. Her dancing is gracious and clear, driven by intent and storyline. Her face, serenely beatific, conveys a warmth which both beckons and enchants. In fact, Manis sets the standard to which the other performers simply do not rise. When the village women enter in a stately processional, lilting in a measured 4/4 time, they seem detached from the intricate hand and head gestures which accompany the lush instrumentals. Instead of responding to the rich, talking gongs, they remain wooden, sometimes appearing stuck in auto pilot mode. The opulent costumes often made their dancing seem beside the point.

The men fared only moderately better in their displays of dancing and martial arts. Frank Ortega, as the evil Malawana, appeared infinitely more animated playing the drums on the side than playing the intricate movements of Kali Silat. In Kali, the end of every movement is the beginning of another movement. "DeCadena" or chain-like movements where each is connected to the next is what gives Kali its fluidity. In their demonstrations of a martial art known for its speed and precision, Ortega and the other male cast members appeared cloddish, resorting to idle hand waving and superficial gesticulation to summon the martial spirit.

A few cheery performances notwithstanding, notably, Andy Febriant Narenda as the mischievous monkey spirit and Desiree Seguritan as the lovely Sita, the overall effect of Kinding Sindaw's performance was more ornamental than spiritual. The fine set design by Perry Yung and the enchanting Gamelan music simply could not make up for dancers' affected gazes and a disappointing lack of understanding of weight and carriage. Wayland Quintero of SLANT directed the production, which runs this Thursday through Sunday. For more information, please call 212-475-7710.

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