Monkeys popping up in the audience. Acro-yogic feats of strength. A flying demon king.
The world-premiere opening Thursday of BOXTALES Theatre Company’s OM, An Indian Tale of Good and Evil at Santa Barbara’s historic Lobero Theatre was truly dazzling. From the opening moments, with audience members turning in their seats to see cast members filing down the aisles playing drums and other Indian instruments, the full-to-brimming house was enthralled.
Clad all in white, the dozen performers took the stage and moved ceremoniously through a series of yogalike poses, setting the mood and introducing a main component of the production. Based on the ancient Indian epic poem the Ramayana, the production dramatizes its core themes of good and evil, human foibles and strength, demonic possession and dharma using acro-yoga, aerial dance, shadow puppetry, stilt-walking, masks, poi spinning and more.
No lesser assets, however, are the energy, versatility and grace of the cast. All six men and six women seamlessly embodied multiple roles as well as myriad set pieces. Performers holding bamboo poles end to end, rising and falling, represented a forest for the main characters to walk through. A human bridge was formed to represent the hero’s superhuman effort to cross an ocean and rescue his love, held captive by a demon. Cast members routinely formed thrones for royal characters to sit upon.
In the opening scene, a wild horse was embodied by Bryan West — who spent the rest of the show as Rama, the hero, using only a pair of bamboo poles. When he reared, snorted and trembled, resisting capture, he seemed to channel essential equine spirit.
If unfamiliar with the original story, one would do well to peruse the synopsis in the program beforehand to prepare for the snappy pace and myriad characters. Those who know the plot will undoubtedly enjoy BOXTALES’ artful and heartfelt interpretation. The company has a way of using minimal sets and props but rich kinisthetic imagery that engages the viewer’s imagination to “connect the dots.”
Matthew Tavianini and Michael Andrews, two of BOXTALES’ three core members, provided a solid framework. It is a pleasure to witness the comfort, color and creativity with which these seasoned actors inhabit their roles. Rudy Martinez, who also designed the shadow puppets, and Angela Chandra, on the younger end of the spectrum, proved to have great presence and poise as well.
A highlight of the show was the appearance in the second half of the monkey army, in masks and long curved tails. Chattering and crouching, they represented comic relief but also loyalty and teamwork. Jenny Sauer-Klein, yoga choreographer of the production and teacher of acro-yoga, is to be commended for her delightful and dedicated portrayal of the monkey king, Hanuman, exuberant ally of Rama.
Live music onstage throughout the show was provided by Montino Bourbon on sarod, a traditional Indian instrument. It provided a dreamlike quality that set the mood perfectly for an evening of fantasy. The beautiful (and terrifying) masks, as well as the monkey tails and other props, were masterfully created by production designer Timo Beckwith. The show was presented in association with UCSB.
Director Jeff Mills, the third core member of BOXTALES, teaches movement in the university’s acting program and several of the cast members are students. Mills’ imaginative and original direction was surely the heart of this beautiful evening of theater.
Midway through the evening, when a large spider made an unscheduled appearance and could be seen descending slowly to one side of the stage, its shimmering thread gleaming in the stage lights, it seemed as if an ancient spirit was visiting to grace OM with its blessing.
[The BOXTALES production will be at the Lobero Theatre through Sunday. Shows times are 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. To purchase tickets, click here or call the box office at 805.963.0761.]
— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and reviewer.