The Sitayana (Or How to Make a Triple Entrance)
From the get-go, East West Players and its partners let their audiences know that their joint production of The Sitayana (Or How To Make An Exit) is not going to be a scholarly retelling of India’s beloved Ramayana. Lucky you, because the male-driven Sanskrit text of the Ramayana consists of the incredibly lengthy travails and labored life story of King Rama and his wife Sita.
As the title suggests, this Sitayana has other plans, and playwright Lavina Jadhwani, author of this lighter version of the story, is not shy about sharing them. East West and its partners — New York’s Hypokrit Productions and EnActe Arts, based in Northern California and Houston — have found a way to each get personal licks in the planning of this thing, structurally and stylistically. Jadhwani meanwhile, has a lot of cheeky fun shrinking the Ramayana’s seven parts and 24,000 verses down to a swift 60-minute dramayana told entirely from a 21stcentury feminine perspective.
So the megaphone this time goes to Sita, Rama’s wife — or as she prefers to call him, Ram for short. In her Sitayana, she has the freedom of being the solo narrator of her life and give us a snappy account of what it was like to — are you ready? — follow her new husband, Prince of Ayodha, into a 14-year exile in a forest, bear him (and her?) two children, return with him to Ayodha and watch him be crowned king, to then be abducted by an enemy, survive that abduction and the war it provokes, and eventually to return to her husband’s fold. You can see why it took seven parts and 24,000 verses to tell the original tale.
After Sita’s return, however, the story’s ending departs from expectation, with Jadhwani choosing a more modern finale (no spoilers from me). Thanks to the playwright’s bold imagination, Sita manages to tell us her story entirely in a modern American idiom, slang included, as she turns the tables on the Ramayana, puncturing whatever shreds of male solemnity are left in that slice of mythological history.
Having settled on its message, the producing trifecta of The Sitayana decided to make this fresh approach an acting opportunity for not one, but three actors. Each one takes on the very same Jadhwani script to recount Sita’s life, but each one viewed from a different stage of life.
First, we see Sita as an exuberant teenager, played with a warm and giddy vivacity by Nikita Chaudhry. This Sita can hardly wait to be married to that handsome Prince Ram. Wow-ee.
Second, actor Sheetal Gandhi (see the featured image above) delivers Sita as an elegant young archer and wife, who grows more and more composed as she becomes a married queen who keeps seeking new ways to “make this [marriage?] work.”
And finally, we have the now mature Sita, wife and mother of two, performed by Minita Gandhi as a paragon of gentleness and wisdom who, after her exhausting years of exile in the forest with Ram, and too many years held in captivity by another man, finally decides the time has come to pursue becoming a whole person within herself for a change.
Plot, as you might imagine, is not the point here, since it never wavers, remaining exactly the same three times over. That repetition becomes problematic if you choose to watch all three segments at one sitting. But since this is a virtual presentation, you do retain the option to take all the breaks you desire between or even during each deliveryt. It is not a spectacular idea, but there it is. The producers chose it.
The point seems to have been how to solve uniting the central feminist message and the entertainment value of this ancient story and drag both into the American 21st century. The same producers also chose to use the jocular updated language, plus the abbreviated plotline (our attention span is only getting shorter), topping the whole thing with that juicy “me too” trope at the end.
Does it work? It depends on how you define “work.” To a surprising degree, yes, it keeps us interested thanks to Reena Dutt’s circumspect direction that, in all three cases, never forces the performance. Since the script never varies, she utilizes lighting, costumes and other design elements, plus the ages of the performers to create differentiation.
The monologues also are aided by the Ramayana itself which is something of a shifting story, with various endings for the various events it inhabits, depending on which vaguely South Asian version of the story you encounter. We’ve been told it is divided into seven parts and that seven versions of the book exist and that it’s been translated into several languages. It is estimated to have been written some time between 500 BCE and 100 BCE, which makes it not only old, but fluid at best. Scholars believe that it was written before that other great Indian epic, The Mahabharata, which had a triumphant dramatization at the hands of director Peter Brook and his Paris-based company in the early to mid-1980s.
I cannot certify any of the historical facts beyond saying that I have read some of the available summaries and, of course, listened to Jadhwani’s script three times. I’m equally confident that most ordinary mortals will not have read much more than I have, given the Ramayana’s forbidding length and endless ramifications.
I did choose to watch all three solo Jadhwani segments in a single day, taking a decent break between each. For me, and I suspect for others, it felt more like watching a long audition or an acting exercise from three enjoyable performers, rather than a fully developed or fulfilling piece of theatre. Seeing it three times over under any circumstances is not for all markets.
In fairness, design plays a significant role, especially in the third segment as designer Nancy Chou’s presentation cleverly imitates a graphic novel. So design in all three cases manages to grab its share of attention by adding visual variety, even as the repetition begins to wilt the level of interest. But for the artists involved, it’s clear that they feel an immense sense of liberation and triumph for having added to the visibility of the South Asian arts community by contributing this many-pronged piece of work. It’s hard to argue with that reasoning.
What: The Sitayana (Or How To Make An Exit)
Where: East West Players Virtual 55th Anniversary Season.
When: Live streaming or Video-On-Demand available through Oct. 17th. Tickets: $9.99.
Online: www.eastwestplayers.org or firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured image: Sheet; Gandhi as Sita the young wife in The Sitayana (Or How To Make An Exit)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sylvie Drake is a trilingual translator and writer, who was born in Alexandria, Egypt. She has an MFA in directing from the Pasadena Playhouse, is a former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, serving as chief critic for the last three of a total of 23 years. She was invited to establish Prima Facie, the first new play festival for the Denver Center Theatre Company that continues to this day under a different name, and later served for several years as director of Media Relations & Publications for The Denver Center for the Performing Arts as well as advisor to the Denver Center Theatre Company. She was twice president of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, is a current member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a current contributor to culturaldaily.com and other publications.
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