Eleven days before opening night of Ramayana 2K2, an ambitious and provocative adaptation of one of the two great epic poems of Hindu literature slated to open Oct. 24 at Highways Performance Space, director Robert Prior, artistic director of L.A.'s much-honored Fabulous Monsters Performance Group, looked both energized and frazzled.
Although time was clearly prized as much as the clarified ghee that one would pour as an offering to the elephant god Ganesha, the talented director maintained the upbeat and genial aura of a mystic during his conversation. And that's a good thing, because if there is one thing that is mystical, it's the sprawling Hindu epic, which tells of war between gods, warrior kings, 10-headed demons, and monkey soldiers. Just playing the story straight might take a month—but Prior has vowed to turn the tale into a performance art tour de force, with dancers, acrobats, and an ingenious score of electronic music, composed by up to 20 groups who submitted their samples via the Internet from locales as far away as Singapore and London.
"In a weird way," Prior mused, "it's kind of operatic. No, it's more like Chinese Opera," he corrected himself. "I'm trying very hard to sustain what is bizarrely Hindu about the piece. There's a backstory—and there's a backstory to the backstory. Hindu storytelling is cyclical: You can finish a story and go, 'Oh, so that's what happened.' And then you go, 'Not really.' And you tell the story from another angle."
Over a steam-table Thai dinner quickly snatched at a small restaurant around the corner from the rehearsal stage, Prior spilled his thoughts in rapid bursts. Prior's interest in the Ramayana started after seeing the famous and seminal Peter Brook staging of the other great Hindu epic, The Mahabarata. Yet it wasn't until years later that he began to realize his own take on the second tale. "I happened to be up in Northern California, where they do a musical version of the Ramayana at this Ashram every year," he recalled. "And they've been doing it for about 20 years, and they do it as a weird pop musical. I wasn't very fond of their adaptation, but I liked the idea."
Prior found himself studying various other productions of the tale—including one he saw performed in Bali. "So I got the huge multivolume Valmiki Ramayana, and I was lost. So I went to the next guy who adapted it into Bengali. And I found this really weird Victorian version, created in 1880, and it's all in rhyming pentameter, and it was strangely inspirational. In the end, I kind of made my own—I've used a few words here and there, and I think I've read 15 or 16 versions."
As founder of the Fabulous Monsters Performance Group, Prior has garnered a reputation for being one of the town's most innovative and visually assured directors. Prior's Project: Alice reinvented the story of Alice in Wonderland as an opium hallucination, while his version of The Importance of Being Earnest was a drag spectacle, before drag was old hat. His more recent acclaimed adaptation of Hedda Gabler, Speed Hedda, recently enjoyed a decent run at New York's La MaMa, after premiering at the Evidence Room.
At the moment, though, it's all about Ramayana, which seems to be his most ambitious project yet. Prior whipped out some of the costume design drawings for the show—and they are astonishing, indeed: In one, a troupe of shaggy, pelt-wearing giants with horns, fangs, and skull-shaped codpieces leer at the viewer. In another, a hideous 10-headed demon flails its 10 arms. Even the waiter at the Thai restaurant was so amazed by the pictures that he came over to gape at them.
After our meal, Prior snuck me into the rehearsal hall, where the astonishingly youthful-looking cast was being put through their warm-up exercises by Prior's collaborator and head choreographer, Stephen Hues. It is tough to imagine these clean-cut kids turning into a court of demons and monkey warriors—but Prior assured me that they are an exceptionally talented group. The ensemble consists mostly of dancers and gymnasts, rather than conventional actors. Prior whispered in my ear as the performers stretched in a circle, "I've always wanted to do something with acrobats. I love being able to give instructions like 'do a back flip and come down close and swing from ropes.' "
Prior is also unstinting in his praise of his collaborators, particularly singling out the promising young Hues, who previously ran what Prior called a radical drag political dance company in Montreal.
Ramayana 2K2 promises to be, at the very least, an unusual experience that filters Hindu culture through the sensibility of an innovative Los Angeles artist. Said Prior, "It's so physically demanding. And I think that's what's so different." We asked one of the actors, on her way into the rehearsal room, how the show is going, she answered, "Fire and swords and monkeys and theatre," and kept going.
"Ramayana 2K2," will be presented by Fabulous Monsters Performance Group, in association with Highways Performance Space, at Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Thurs.-Sat. 8:30 p.m., Sun. 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24-Nov. 3. $15. (310) 315-1459.