By Philip Pearce
I was invited last weekend to Watsonville’s Mount Madonna School’s annual stage version of the 2600-year-old East Indian epic called Ramayana. In the interest of full disclosure, I wasn’t there because I write for this website but because my godson August Jonker, whose dad is American and whose mother is Indian, was dancing in the show.
Ramayana 2013 was not your typical end-of-year school play. For 35 years Mount Madonna, staff, parents and 200-something student body, have mounted increasingly elaborate and spectacular renditions of this classic tale—renditions so massive in fact that four years ago they moved hundreds of costumes, multitudes of wigs and masks, massive scenery units and collection of mechanical stage monsters, along with a full pit orchestra, from the school’s theatre spaces to the big Mexican Heritage Theatre on Alum Rock Road in San José.
A pre-performance backstage tour showed how well the new venue meets the needs of the dozens of staff and hundreds of parents who have designed and produced 80 per cent of the scenery and props and costumes and who work like a well-ordered backstage army, costuming and making up droves of Indian royalty, monkeys, demons, vultures, belly dancers and forest creatures, while parent and staff technicians prepare the machinery of creatures such as a pair of ten-to-twelve-foot high giants with jaws that chew and eyes that roll, and an automobile-operated dragon which will roll its own red eyeballs as it belches out clouds of stage smoke in one of the final big stage battles. By the time it all happened, Sunday’s audience was ecstatic, wild and noisy.
August‘s parents, Kevin and Geneffa Jonker, emphasized before the show that this is no specialty act by an elite school drama club or coterie of history buffs. Every student from preschool right up to grade twelve takes a role, providing everything from lead singing, dancing and dialogue to mass chorus work as variegated forest animals and uniformed demons, dancing girls and martial arts teams, all to be blocked, choreographed and rehearsed by director Sampad Martin Kachuck starting in February and culminating in June. If you’re a Mount Madonna jock who’d rather be playing basketball, that’s just too bad. You climb into your wig or turban or animal skin along with your artsier classmates. It’s an all-in arrangement that might well produce awesome spectacle but wooden acting, but that didn’t happen, at least not this year. The cast was not just enthusiastic, they were, by and large, adept. As the hero Prince Rama, a convincingly heroic Rudy Hooven swashbuckled, sang and danced like a pro and, in battles with enemies of varying size and species, did backflips and forward rolls that would have been a credit to a professional acrobat. His is the saga of a man who, like Homer’s Ulysses, finds himself banished from home and royal honor and must embark on a journey of retribution and self discovery, stalked by an assortment of eccentric enemies. In Rama’s case these include a wicked rival king with ten heads, played this year with bravura menace by Will Bryan in a daunting costume. Unlike Ulysses, Rama has his bride along for the big adventures. She was played here by Sanika Lakka, who sang beautifully and reminded my old eyes of a very young Dorothy Lamour. She and Rama also have the presence and support of Rama’s faithful brother Lakshmana, briskly enacted by Pedro Aquirre. The animal-loving bride Sita turns out to be a bit of a mixed blessing, since she messes things up along the route by falling for one of Rama’s enemies whose on-the-spot transformation from a sneaky sorcerer (Sage Buzzini) to an alluring golden deer (Renata Massion) happens on stage right in front of our eyes.
With all those hundreds on stage, it’s a shame not to name every member of a big and gifted young cast, but I did warm especially to a couple of ham-fisted comic baddies called Bonehead and Hooknose, played with raucous brio by Aimee Hopskins and Roger Hooker, and to the slick and slyly comic narration by Jake Getz and Vyvyanne Mackey. All in all, something to see. And everything, of course, turns out just fine by the final curtain. .
As to Augie Jonker, well, he seemed to me to be the slickest and most energetic of his whole high-spirited dance team, but that’s probably because (a) his Mom choreographed that number, and (b) I am a doting and prejudiced godfather.
It’s all over in a single massive annual three-day weekend, but it will happen again next June.