'Journey to the Buddha' lovely, slow-paced

BY RENEE VALOIS, The Pioneer Press, Feb. 27, 2006

Minneapolis, USA -- Most theater aims to entertain, but "Gotama: A Journey to the Buddha" is more intent on creating a spiritual experience. In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre has produced an artistic meditation on the formation of the man who founded Buddhism. The smell of incense perfumes the theater. There are lovely images, poetic metaphors and thoughtful music — along with the requisite puppets the troupe is famous for.

The pace is very leisurely, which works for meditation, but is not so ideal for a performance. The Buddha's journey feels more like an aimless amble than an adventure, although admittedly it's hard to convey the interior journey at the heart of it all. As my eighth-grade daughter said, "Not much happens." And yet, everything happens.

Siddhattha Gotama is born a wealthy prince, and prophecies say he will either be a great king or a powerful spiritual teacher. It is predicted that four key encounters will transform him into a teacher instead of a ruler: with the old, the sick, the dead and the spiritual. To preserve his heir, the king decides to shield his son from the outside world and keeps him a virtual prisoner in the palace, protecting him from those four life-changing sights.

Of course, as an adult, Gotama manages to escape the palace with the help of his charioteer, Channa, and on his very first sojourn meets the four who transform his life. He decides to become a monk to try to discover a way to end the suffering he has seen.

The interaction between human actors and puppets works well. Julian McFaul as the everyman charioteer, Channa, conveys the voice of humanity. He questions the prince's actions and Gotama responds with silence or words projected on the wings, because the Buddha-to-be is played by a puppet. He begins as a tiny figure in a compact castle and eventually progresses to a life-size mannequin who moves with the actors.

The counterpoint between the very emotional — and often unhappy — Channa and the expressionless Gotama puppet is interesting. Given the Buddha's exalted status, there is some wisdom in making him otherworldly, inscrutable and serene, as this performance does.

On the other hand, it makes him less understandable and sympathetic as well. The transition near the end when McFaul abruptly changes from portraying Channa to playing the Buddha is confusing. And the Buddha's achievement of enlightenment could be presented in a more climactic way.

Original music by Laura Harada on violin and Tim O'Keefe on percussion adds texture and depth to the show. Shadow puppets by Janaki Ranpura offer another welcome layer. Masanari Kawahara and Sandy Spieler bring various characters to life.

There is little to hook one's emotions in the show, and the feel is reverential and melancholy. Director Andrew Kim has put together a slow-paced, beautifully contemplative production.


What: "Gotama: A Journey to the Buddha"
Where: 1500 East Lake St., Minneapolis
When: Through March 26
Tickets: $15
Information: 612-721-2535 or www.hobt.org
Capsule: A quietly lovely and slow-moving look at the formation of the Buddha.