Writer-director Ruben Polendo stages an audacious triumph with "The Myth Cycle: Ahraihsak." This is a work that may seem strange to Western auds, but by trading naturalism for ritual, "Ahraihsak" leaps beyond the ordinary world to create a wholly theatrical universe.
Showing a deep understanding of myth and at least three distinct styles of theater, writer-director Ruben Polendo stages an audacious triumph with “The Myth Cycle: Ahraihsak.” This is a work that may seem strange to Western auds, since it hews so closely to the meditative style of traditional Japanese drama, Balinese puppetry and Tibetan mask theater. But by trading naturalism for ritual, “Ahraihsak” leaps beyond the ordinary world to create a wholly theatrical universe.
Polendo has written a story of broad archetypes: Prince Ihsak (Darren Pettie) is a warrior who becomes king of his land after a series of bloody disasters. As a ruler, he salves his misery by violently attacking everyone in sight, leading to an ultimate showdown with Tarwan (Aysan Celik), the princess-warrior who loved him when he was in exile.
Though Polendo spins his narrative with graceful language — and creates a vivid supporting cast — the tale is purposely devoid of major surprises. As in ancient legends recounted in such Japanese forms as Noh and bunraku, the point is less to be shocked by the plot than to get lost in its rich detail. The journey matters just as much as the destination.
That’s for the best, since “Ahraihsak’s” conclusions on violence and power are awfully tidy. But it’s easy to forgive a simplified moral when the steps toward it are as sumptuous as they are here.
The play’s first moments announce the sophistication of its world. A man (Carmen M. Herlihy) and two boys, represented as puppets, watch a bird puppet fly through the sky. The bird puppeteer moves the creature elegantly, letting it glide across the stage while the children follow behind. From the darkness, we hear actors speaking for the boys, instantly telling us that thoughts and actions can exist in two worlds.
Finally, one of the boys kills the bird. A puppeteer gently slides a single stick between its wings. Another pulls a blood-red thread from its neck. Upstage, musician Jef Evans accompanies this loss by stuttering his hands on an upright drum. Individually, these are simple gestures with obvious meanings: violence, bleeding, a racing heart. But together, the symbols take on a sobbing weight. The cumulative effect of this non-literal world taps something more primal.
Once humans take over for puppets — the boys grow up to become Ihsak and his brother Sammael (Ben Fox) — that visceral quality remains intact. All the actors are fiercely committed to the production’s performance style, which combines athletic physicality with realistic tones of voice. This lets their emotions remain clear while announcing that their elegant bodies — choreographed by Scott Spahr — belong to mythic figures instead of “real” characters.
In a roomful of stellar thesps, Corey Sullivan gives the most arresting proof that non-natural acting can be honest. As Ihsak’s friend Mibi, he evolves from a singing jester to a disillusioned general in Ihsak’s army. His body crumples by slow degrees as his spirit breaks, making him a shadow of himself.
Miranda Hoffman’s costumes perfectly enhance the ensemble’s work. Her designs recall Japanese robes, rippling after the bodies inside them have stopped moving. And by revealing various bits of skin — a thigh here, half a torso there — her clothes let human flesh give counterpoint to the masks designed by Lori Petermann.
Not every character is masked, but when warriors cover their faces with one of Petermann’s dragon visages, they become half-monster. The skin they show tells a bitter joke about how violence warps the aggressor.
But just like the puppets with real voices, the warriors in the play always remain people. Both the elegance and the despair of “Ahraihsak” rise from the fact that everything we see can be traced to something human.