The Boxtales Theatre Company, in association with Theater UCSB, opened its original show, “Om,” to a full house at the Lobero Theatre last Thursday evening.

“Om,” an adaptation of the scriptural Indian epic, “The Ramayana,” is described by Boxtales’ dramaturge as “a myth about overcoming fear in the face of adversity by summoning both courage and compassion.” Recent UCSB graduate and Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival award-winner Allison Menzimer was commissioned to write the script.

Indeed, UCSB’s Theater department was well represented in this show. Seven of the actors are either current students or recent graduates of the BFA program, and the director, Jeff Mills, is a current BFA professor.

The show itself was visually stunning, and it benefitted greatly from the lack of an extravagant set, drawing more attention to the actors. The costumes were beautiful, with masked demons (rakshasas), and monkey people, as well as spirits and gods all adding to the fantastical nature of this “tale of good and evil.”
“First we strive to ignite a childlike wonder in anyone who attends our performances,” Director Jeff Mills said. “Cultural myths and stories nearly always operate on this level, and this is one of the reasons we are committed to exploring them. Our aim is to enchant rather than deconstruct and we encourage our audience not to suspend their disbelief, but to suspend their belief that life is anything but EPIC!”

The show certainly strove for the epic in every way that it could. Music and lighting helped set the action in a timeless place, freeing the action from the bonds of human possibility. Too, spectacle was a constant contribution to this atmosphere. The actors, many of whom played multiple roles, worked together to create new forms on stage through lifts and yogic partner poses. Characters were capable of flight, ropes hanging from the ceiling allowed characters to float down – presumably from some unearthly place – and move about the stage in an inhuman fashion.

Despite all of the attention to a visually elegant performance, the details of the actual story were presented in an often-opaque fashion, requiring the audience to make connections themselves in a story that many were likely unfamiliar with.

With regards to this component of the show, Mills explained that the ambiguities and mysteries are an essential part of this storytelling medium.

“Because we are theater artists, our most expressive medium is the imagination of each audience member. Due to the limits of our particular artists’ canvas, we cannot supply every detail of every image, answer every question or resolve every dramatic situation. We can supply hints, shadows, essences and skeletons and we invite the audience to ‘connect the dots’ and complete the images in their minds’ eye.”

Perhaps part of the message was lost due to the age and form that this story comes in, despite its adaptation for an American audience. Several theatric devices were employed in the telling of this tale: The narrator-like twins reciting “The Ramayana” aided the audience with expository speeches and scenes woven into the action, coupled with shadow puppetry and dance all attempted to illuminate different aspects of the story. Again, these devices added to a sensory rich performance, which forgave some of the holes in the plot.