Written and directed by Rubén Polendo, though clearly credited as a Theater Mitu collaboration, The Myth Cycle: Ahraihsak is an escape into a ritualistic performance that explores the perfections and frailties of human nature. Intelligent and visually striking, this capable production exposes its audience to artistic traditions not commonly encountered in Western theater. The titular myth is that of Ihsak (Darren Pettie), the favored heir of a king. Betrayed by his brother, he goes into exile. While wandering, he meets another king who was wrongly dethroned: Naarah (Jason Lew). Naarah travels with his fiercely protective sister Tarwan (Aysan Çelik), who quickly develops both a strong respect for and an attraction to Ihsak.
Summoned back to his kingdom by his treacherous brother, Ihsak returns home, only to lose everything he values. His actions plunge him into violence and despair, until a brave novice priestess (Jenni-Lynn McMillin) helps him to heal.
Ihsak's devolution from noble warrior to haunted tyrant—and his transformation back—seems derived from the myths and traditions of many cultures. No specific culture or country is cited in the program as source material, and several times throughout the evening I wondered if this story was created by Theater Mitu or was an actual myth. While the play clearly displays South Asian influences, the themes of creation, destruction, hope, and love are universal, and as relevant today as they would have been in any past age.
Strong performances by Pettie, Çelik, Lew, and Corey Sullivan (as the comical Mibi) keep the journey of Ihsak and his companions engaging and emotionally charged throughout the two acts. As Act I came to a close, several short, powerful scenes gave the show's first half a bit more energy than its second, which ends with a gentle message of hope and peace.
Theater Mitu's mission includes a concept it calls "Whole Theater," where theater entertains the senses, the mind, and the emotions. This was instantly apparent when walking into Teatro LA TEA at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center: the air was heavy with incense, and the space separating the performing area from the audience was lined with Oriental rugs. It was clear that the world in this play would be very different from noisy, gritty Delancey Street outside.
Powerful visual elements—puppets, masks, handcrafted props—added to the production's luster. The puppets worked well, from the rod puppet of young Naarah to the brilliant construction of Ahsan the horse, silently and deftly executed by Peggy Trecker. Because the actors performed so seamlessly with their props, the show's deceptively simple "special effects" were quite effective.
Scott Spahr's set of platforms and ramps was spare and elegant. Outlining the central performing area were shallow troughs of dirt, tantalizingly lighted before the show began but, sadly, not used during the production. However, an ingenious use of shiny Plexiglas and well-positioned water for Tarwan's bathing scene more than made up for it.
Miranda Hoffman's costumes were simple and represented a strong sampling of East Asian and Southeast Asian traditional dress. The masterful lighting design by Ryan Mueller made everyone and everything look beautiful.
Jef Evans played his original music in full visibility of the audience. He sat at his small version of a gamelan, surrounded by drums, bells, chimes, and rattles. The songs and vocal performances were perhaps the show's weakest aspect, if only because the acting and technical values were so exceptional. I was continually surprised to hear the songs delivered in English because they seemed so steeped in non-Western elements. The characters did seem to come by their songs organically, and the well-composed music flowed in and out of each scene naturally.
Theater Mitu's production succeeds at being "Whole Theater" because it is definitely the sum of its parts. Not just a vehicle for acting, writing, or visual effects, the play turns into true performance in a way that traditional Western theater seldom achieves. While it is an especially enjoyable evening for a theatergoer interested in ritual and performance, less specialized audiences should not feel intimidated by the title or subject matter. The company does a great job of making the show accessible and entertaining for everyone.