General 3-17-2006

Gotama: Delicious Theater, Well-Crafted

Dean Seal would like a little more from the Heart of the Beast's production of "Gotama"--though he liked what he saw.

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The Buddha has been peering around the corners of my spiritual life for a long time. He comes recommended to me by Jewish liberals, Anglican Canons, Japanese booksellers, and Unitarians recovering from the more punitive forms of Christianity. So I was looking forward to this production to learn more.

It was a good start. This delicious production is touching, moving, a delight to the eye and ear, and conveys the beginnings of the journey that the young prince makes when he escapes from his stately pleasure-dome to see what the world is really about. My only complaint is that it stops short. It uses its time to tell us how he got here, but not to tell us where he got. It’s the story of a teacher without any of his teachings.

Maybe it would be best to call it Part One. But I’d sign right up for part 2; this is a quibble more than a complaint. I would heartily recommend this show to anyone who wants to enjoy a superb 75 minutes of minutely crafted world theater that blends stagecraft from around the globe to make sense out of a great religion to anyone wandering in from East lake Street.

The story is of a rich prince who seemed poised to inherit the best of everything. He will inherit his father’s kingdom, he is known to be a great archer and athlete, a lover of learning and a lovely lover. His father tries to keep him in the dark about the outside world, because the prophecy of his youth is that he will either be a great prince or a great teacher, and we all know the differential in salary between those two posts. His father wants the best for him, as he can only hope for from what he knows. But Gotama escapes.

He sees the sights foretold; an old man, a sick woman, a dead man, and a monk who has renounced the world. He asks, does this happen to all of us? His charioteer acknowledges this truth, that death comes to us all.

Gotama is moved. He casts off his clothing and all that is attached to the manor to which he was born, and takes on the teachings and the trappings of the ascetics who would instruct him in self-denial. It leads to a night under the banyan tree where he achieves enlightenment. This is the story of us, of how we could be, if we peeked around the corner of our wealth and the walled gardens of our prosperity, and saw the despair of Darfur, of Baghdad, of our own streets starved of food and compassion. We need to look to be moved, and we need to feel the pain of others in order to be able to help. That is what this play calls enlightenment.

The story is told in layers of superb puppetry and live actors. Julian McFaul carries the narrative ball as the Charioteer who accompanies the prince in his pleasures and guards him in his fall to earth. The ensemble of puppeteers (Masanari Kawahara, Janaki Panpura, Sandy Spieler) are wonderfully trained and inspired in their humanizing of the sculpted characters. We expect the best from Heart of the Beast, and we get it.

They are dressed in white; instead of disappearing like black-clad bunraku puppeteers, this ensemble guides us, with their eyes and with their expressions, to where we should look, and to coach us in the effect of the action. It’s like having company in watching the show. The baby Gotama is tiny, the young Gotama is larger, the seeker Gotama is life-sized, and the enlightened one is bigger than a tree.

The special effects make this a satisfying experience throughout. Music by the astonishing duo of Laura Harada and Tim O’Keefe starts us in strings of violin and other (maddeningly unnamed) stringed instruments, a variety of percussion, and the occasional glass, played for a rim-hum that gave us an unending bell-like tone at the central core of the storyline. The shadow puppetry on the scrim filled in story bits with abstract images that told specific pieces of information, storytelling in pictures like a black and white stained glass window. As a produced piece of theater, this was an exquisite treat to the eye, ear and heart.

There was one problem in staging, and one problem in plotting, both of which happen at almost the same time. As Gotama the puppet tastes the milk-rice which leads him to the middle way, suddenly the charioteer becomes Gotama. What happens to Channa the charioteer? Why is the puppet Gotama led off the stage as if he dies? I’d be okay with showing that he had found a middle way by becoming a more human monk, leaving behind the stick-man puppet to become the more fully enfleshed enlightened one, but the confusion of him taking on the life of Channa is confusing. I kept wondering, did Gotama leave? Did the charioteer become the Buddha?

Following this confusion is the confusion of the Enlightened One’s enlightenment. We have to take their word for it. We do not get to hear the great teacher teach. We hear nothing about why everyone should be interested enough in this fellow to tell his story.

It’s as if we were told the story of Jesus ,and it ended when he was baptized, without hearing what he had to say or how he lived. Why can’t we have the Buddha make an appearance? Why can’t he say what he came to say? It reminded me of how Oscar Wilde described cigarettes as being the perfect luxury: “They are delicious and delightful, and leave one feeling unsatisfied.” If the intent of the playwright is to leave us wanting more, it was a success. If it was to teach us about the Buddha’s teaching, it fell short. I accept it as the story of his life-changing journey in a search for meaning. And that’s a great gift in itself.

Playing to March 26th, at Heart of the Beast at the Avalon Theater, 1500 East Lake St. Minneapolis. 612=721-2535.