A riveting score pulls together fights, dances, fables, vignettes, and an epic love story.
A riveting score pulls together fights, dances, fables, vignettes, and an epic love story. Credit: Handout photo by Stan Barouh

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Constellation’s latest play is not Romeo and Juliet in Indian garb—but it often feels that way. The North American premiere of famed Indian playwright Girish Karnad’s The Fire and The Rain is largely based on stories from the Indian epic poem “The Mahabharata,” specifically a few kernels concerned with mortals who defy gods, and about the disastrous effects that follow. Karnad ties these ancient fables together into a three-hour show with some familiar Shakespearean glue: A hot-blooded young man falls for a dreamy young woman from a family (or in this case, a caste) unlike his own. They attempt to get together anyway, while a lot of bodies pile up and a lot of moral lessons are heaped upon the survivors.

The romance between Arvasu (Dallas Tolentino), a Brahmin, and his huntress love interest Nittilai (Lynette Rathnam) is acted with a lot of genuine warmth—director Allison Arkell Stockman leans especially on Synetic alum Tolentino’s dancing prowess to shape that character into a sprightly, high-spirited youth. But their love story packs a weak dramatic punch, especially in juxtaposition with the play’s more exciting subplots. The biggest roadblock the two lovers face is largely (yawn) bureaucratic: As long as Arvasu can present his request to Nittilai’s tribal council, the wedding can proceed without much further hassle beyond some mild disapproval.

Outside of their romance, the stakes are much higher. A seven-year-long ceremony is about to culminate in its final sacrifice, which is widely hoped to bring about the end of an interminable drought choking the land and starving the people. The desperate situation spawns assassination plots, demonic curses, and betrayals, all pulled off thrillingly and unsettlingly with a dash of dramatic lighting, some fog and fire effects, and liberal use of actors rolling their eyes back into their heads.

Much of the evil machinations in the play fall on Arvasu’s poor sister-in-law Vishakha (Katy Carkuff), who has been cut off from most of the world while her husband Paravasu (Michael Kevin Darnall) completes the seven-year ritual. In the meantime she must fend off predatory advances from her childhood interest Yavakri (Jonathan Lee Taylor)—a self-centered jerk who wasted a favor from a god on himself rather than asking for rain—and the cruel treatment and sole company of her father-in-law Raibhya (Jonathon Church). All the while, a spear-wielding spirit (Ryan Mitchell) haunts the land, compelled by his master to kill.

Quite literally in the center of all this chaotic action is composer and one-man-orchestra Tom Teasley, who plays more than 20 traditional instruments from an orchestra pit built into the center of A.J. Guban’s wonkily tilted stage. His relentless, energetic score propels the show out of its slow, exposition-heavy start right through its bloody climax. The drum-heavy composition is reminiscent of the anxiety-inducing soundtrack to González Iñárritu’s Birdman, particularly when it plays under tense arguments and negotiations. Teasley’s instruments also provide sound effects to Robb Hunter’s tightly choreographed fights, and guide the play’s multiple dance sequences. Teasley’s prominence on stage is no mistake: Karnad’s love story may hold the plot together, but Teasley’s ethereal score binds the play’s mismatched fights and dances and fables and vignettes into a cohesive, exciting production.

835 14th St NW. $20-$45. (202) 204-7741. constellationtheatre.org