The face of the divine is devilishly tricky to depict. The Muslims probably have the right idea by their outright proscription on such efforts, though the ban is founded on long held traditions, as the Koran says nothing on the subject. Moses is always pretty much in sync with C.B. DeMille and Chuck Heston’s standards. Jesus in even his more extreme representations – the long faced Goya Jesus or the Afro-American “Black Jesus” – still share similarities that make his holy persona wholly identifiable.
But when one turns to the images of the Buddha, the vast variations can be vexing. He can be thin-faced or fat and jowled, wide-eyed or closed-eyed, ponderous or playful, grinning or grim, slack-jawed or winsome, with an over-sized head or with lotus marks on the soles of his feet, smiling serenely or inanely. In Northern India, showing the influence of Alexander the Great’s conquests, he is portrayed in togas; in Thailand his face is hooded by the protective coils of a huge snake. There are some two-score insignias or markers used to symbolize his divinity ranging from a tuft of hair cascading from his forehead to webbed fingers.
For any artist there is no more elusive figure in the world’s religions than Buddha to craft an accurate representation of. He is, in a sense, a divine D.B. Cooper.
In his one man show, “Buddha – A Fantastic Journey”, now at the Bootleg Theater, Evan Brenner sets out to attempt the “unattainable” and accounts himself admirably in the effort. Wisely, Brenner does not tell the tale of the young pampered prince whose cloistered existence is shattered with his first awareness of sickness and death, but rather shares it; he does not preach to the audience, but by his deft performance brings it into partnership. By his framing of the Buddha’s complex story of self-discovery in an elegant simplicity, Brenner achieves the ultimate accessibility and we willingly allow ourselves to be guided in much the same way by his young Siddhartha Gautama as we do Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager in “Our Town”. Of course Brenner takes us past Grover’s Corners to “the great world of light, that lies behind all human destinies.”
Though indeed a one man show, Brenner is never alone on stage. Off to one side of the stage in full view of the audience, sit Jaeger Smith and Sheela Bringi, two performers with solid backgrounds in the classical music of India whose superb artistry and original score adds subtext, shadow and substance to Brenner’s story telling.
Veteran actor John C. Reilly adroitly sidesteps the mistakes most common to first time directors, by an awareness that a director’s presence on stage must be that of a butterfly and not an elephant. Along with technical director Jon Stoner and lighting and set designer Francois-Pierre Couture, Reilly has woven a lush tapestry of colors and sounds while seeing to it the audience is never choked or entrapped within the weave itself. All the external elements of the evening, produced by Jessica Hanna and Alicia Adams, serve, as they should, to accent and enunciate the staging with a crafted finesse so silken sleek as to be all but invisible.
For those familiar with the Buddha’s story and those not, for anyone with an interest in matters spiritual or religious, and especially for those who seek to experience exceptional theater this is one journey you won’t regret. And who knows, you may even be the witness of your own thoughts.