Sovanna Macha (Sara Moon, left) protects her domain of the cosmic ocean, moments before the monkey army helps Rama rescue Sita.  Photo courtesy of Steve  DiBartolomeo.
Sovanna Macha (Sara Moon, left) protects her domain of the cosmic ocean, moments before the monkey army helps Rama rescue Sita. Photo courtesy of Steve DiBartolomeo.

Red and yellow rays illuminated a lotus flower printed on the stage floor and performers, whose bodies were transformed by their intricate costumes. “Ramayana,” a play based on the Indian epic poem, was presented in a series of segments by a student cast and a team of guest musicians led by Undang Sumarna.

The performance combined elements of storytelling, dancing and music and was made possible through dancing and acting classes held at UC Santa Cruz. Presented by the theater arts department, “Ramayana” unfolded at the Mainstage Theater from Nov. 14-23.

The play’s director and theater arts professor Kathy Foley led the dance class, which focused on movement, and the acting class, which focused on the work’s text. The entire cast, made up of students from the dance and acting classes, met on Wednesday and Friday afternoons to rehearse the performance together.

At rehearsal, students were either involved in the army of Rama — the divine avatar of Lord Vishnu, or Ravana — the leader of the demons. Students also rehearsed Balinese chants, battle scenes and fighting stances.

The music was produced by the UCSC West Javanese Gamelan, a traditional music ensemble from Indonesia, led by Sumarna, a musical director on campus.

Zeki Schwartz, a musician in the ensemble, played the saron. Typically made of bronze, the saron is hit with a mallet to produce a high pitched, melodic sound. For Schwartz, playing for the stage was a new and challenging experience.

“It was interesting relying on the [actors] for the cues, rather than your musical instructor, because normally you have a composer,” Schwartz said. “You base your speed and how loud you’re playing based on the drummer or conductor, but in this case we had to watch the actors.”

Professor Foley, who completed her dissertation in the Sundanese area of West Java, researched the Thai-Malaysian version of “Ramayana.” UCSC’s rendition combined cultural elements from West Java, Bali, Cambodia and Thailand.

Foley’s research contributed to her classroom discussions. Due to the multiple versions of “Ramayana” in circulation, many cultures preserve different parts of the epic. Foley’s combination of the Thailand and Malaysia versions are unique, since they both differ from Islamic versions of “Ramayana” that are popular in Southeast Asia.

“The Thai-Malay versions have been banned from telling these stories because of Islamic fundamentalism, so I thought it would help students understand the political transformations going on in Southeast Asia,” Foley said.

Ayako Karasawa, a theater student from Japan, knew “Ramayana” was going to be different from traditional Japanese theater. She found some similarities though, like the importance of certain forms and rules in the movement of bodies.

For Karasawa, the sharing of cultures opened up many possibilities to explore different types of performances and cultures.

“I made a lot of friends. The first time in rehearsal, I didn’t know anyone, but as time went by, I communicated with so many cultures,” Karasawa said. “It was fun getting close to the other actors.”

The production was a challenge for many, but everyone in the cast produced a committed performance. One of the performers maintained handstands for a couple of minutes every night. When asked if students underwent a transformation throughout the quarter, Foley said students gained new perspectives on performance theater and the ideas of “Ramayana.”

“You see on stage that [the performers] no longer look like an average UCSC undergraduate,” Foley said. “They look like someone different than when they first walked into the quarter.”