(Friday, February 10, 2012) I admit I was drawn to the performance partly by the idea of hearing the story of the man called Buddha, told not in the words of his disciples but in his own words. Since he was alive around 500 BC, how would they manage that? But I was intrigued even more by the fact that it was directed by John C. Reilly. I was curious about Buddha, but I was a great fan of Reilly’s, having recently admired his performance in Carnage, and even, after many years, remembering his moving rendition of "Cellophane" in the film version of Chicago.
The setting was spare. Behind the stage, a projection of a huge stylized face. Soft music played by two seated women: an odd sort of bamboo flute and a small drum creating a sense of quiet and peace. Center stage, only what looked like a tree stump covered by a red cloth. And when the hum of audience voices quieted down, into that space walked a man, barefoot, dressed in simple white (Evan Brenner). He was the man called Buddha, he explained. He was an old man, looking at death -- that death was nothing to fear, since life and death were natural to us all, and that he had come to tell us the story of his life.
And for 90 minutes, that storyteller told his story, without using great emotional flourishes, changing character only by small shifts in body posture… For instance, when he was driven in his carriage and he questioned the driver, the driver, as he spoke, was identified only with a shift to the right and an alignment of both arms -- extremely effective. And in a rather natural voice, no great drama, he took us on a life voyage: from his privileged childhood, kept strictly away from the realities of the world outside, to the day he was being driven in his carriage to the Pleasure Palace and accidently saw an old man, and then a funeral cortege, and began to understand that, in the world outside, there was something that had been shielded from him: pain and suffering.
For an hour-and-a-half, this great storyteller moved from one scene to the other: the awakening of a wealthy young prince, his decision to go out into the world as a monk, his struggle to find enlightenment by starving himself and punishing himself until he was near death, his encounters with other groups of monks in various states of self-punishment... He meets the devil and his three daughters, each a metaphor for a state of greed or destructive passion, and in the end, we understand how he finally came to reach that state of calm and peace…his “enlightenment.”
And here, for me, and I suspect for many others in the audience, began a double journey: hearing the details of a man’s search for a way to live his life, and a dialogue with my own inner voice, looking at my own life and questioning the value of what I was hearing, especially the concept of nirvana.
Christianity and Judaism also teach us similar paths to…let’s just call it a “right” way to live. But Buddha’s path does not include a “God.” It is simply a path forged by a human who had, through trial and error, discovered a way to live without the constant struggle, the anguish, the pain of wanting and losing, of yearning and feeling unfulfilled…the absolute perfect subject to reflect on in Hollywood during Oscar fever, during the tragedy and the high-pitched excitement of the Grammy Awards... Oh, if the Buddha could have been on that stage with that subject.
Brenner is such a great storyteller that the 90 minutes seemed to evaporate. And at the end of the story, the teller explains that he is now 80, he repeats his first words, that it is natural that everything that lives will die, and that he is satisfied. And once the story is over, your head begins to churn.
For me, I was especially struck by Buddha’s story of his encounter with the devil and his three daughters. Christianity’s devil keeps a burning hell “below,” and this terrible afterlife destination for the wicked is intended to keep the sinner in line. Judiasm doesn’t have a “devil” in that sense. In the Old Testament, the devil is rather a messenger for G-d who, let’s say, comes to a party and finds that the hostess is feeding and entertaining her rich friends without offering drink and food to any poor and hungry. The devil reports her to G-d, who sends a punishment. But always there is a “divine force” at work.
The Christian God had to send a man to carry his message, for the Jews -- even Moses, who received the commandments -- couldn’t look at G-d without being veiled. When Buddha challenges the devil, he does so through his own good actions and dispels the evil. Buddha, like any one of us, could conquer this evil through an achievable shift in his choice of life (if I understood the story correctly).
So, in that sense, the performance was really a two-for-one. A wonderfully entertaining 90 minutes, and a subject for introspection and conversation for…well...a period to be determined by the listener.
When the performance was over, I was able to speak with two remarkable men: Evan Brenner, who managed to cull through (what the program explained) was a huge mass of material from his study of the sutras to distill a tale good enough to captivate an audience; and John C. Reilly, who not only directed the piece, but helped to shape the script and create what was a seamless story told by a master storyteller.
Since there was a reception and I was loaded with inquiries personal to my age and stage in this universe, I probably asked the wrong question. Buddha was 80 when he died enlightened. I am 86 and most definitely unenlightened, so there was a pressing time element for me.
Brenner had studied Buddhism for 20 years and practiced yoga (ably demonstrated by one dramatic headstand). What’s the point of nirvana, I selfishly asked, when it is a state of peace, withdrawing from all hungers, cravings, desires? In giving up all these delicious and maddening and churning (but intriguing) emotions and hungers that humans are heir to, if you don’t “enjoy” them all, painful as they may be, and you come to the end having lived in a state of “peace,” what was the point of living? (Over-simplication from someone who never studied Buddhism.) Brenner explained that he was a student and not a teacher of Buddhism, and that he had spent many hours trying to distill the words of the “master” into a story easily understood by an audience. This was a process, not an “either-or.”
So, when I spoke with John C. Reilly, I asked the same question. I assumed his was a great interest in Buddhism, and the program told me that he had worked with his friend, Brenner, in refining the script. So I asked Reilly -- a successful actor in a world of heightened emotions, in a town known for its constant cravings for sensation, for fame, and for wealth -- where even those not in the “business” either yearn for a part in reality shows, or at least live them vicariously. Reilly’s is a business of dreamers, of fantasy and great hungers. So with this constant temptation, I asked if he believed in this “search for nirvana.” What I remember of his response was that, by studying this philosophy, it was possible to incorporate at least some of its principles into your life.
Here in Buddha: A Fantastic Journey, you get a double dose of the good stuff -- not only a diverting and entertaining performance, but the words written by the living man himself. And you’re left with wonderful, perplexing, exciting questions. Whether you take the time to ponder depends on where you are in these pressured times, dedicated to heightened emotions, constant experience, the constant rush, the constant communication, your ear tuned to a cellphone, listening not to a higher voice but to your friend’s last night’s party.
So if you haven’t achieved “nirvana,” you can -- at the Bootleg Theater, at 2220 Beverly Boulevard -- achieve 90 minutes of wonderful storytelling, the actual words of Buddha, and win a chance -- on the way to your little club for a drink or home to your sometimes not-so-peaceful bed -- to think over your place in this short span on Earth, and decide whether you want to find peace and nirvana, or whether you’re satisfied to play the excitement game, the hunger game, the passion game, the yearning game, the rocky game on life’s problematic game board…like the rest of us.
'Buddha: A Fantastic Journey' runs at the Bootleg Theater until March 4, 2012.