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Theater Review: "Buddha—A Fantastic Journey" At The Bootleg Theater

Sara Itkis |
February 15, 2012 | 12:34 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter


 Phoebe Sudrow)
Phoebe Sudrow)
“All that comes into being passes away. All that begins ends. All that is born dies.” So opens Evan Brenner’s one-man show, “Buddha—A Fantastic Journey,” directed by John C. Reilly. A dramatization of Buddha’s life story in 90 minutes, “Buddha” is truly an experience unto itself. From the building in which it takes place to the structure of the play, everything contributes to making the play an immersive exploration of Buddhism and the man on whose teachings the Eastern religion is founded. While addressing the underlying spiritual beliefs of the Buddhist tradition, writer and actor Evan Brenner also focuses on conveying Buddha’s story from a personal, human perspective. For, as he says in his introduction, this is truly a story about a man—not a statue, not a painting, not an idea, but simply a man. 

Brenner originally premiered his play in Boston in 2009, from where he toured the production around the U.S. He did first-hand research and wrote the script based on the original texts chronicling Buddha’s life. For the West Coast premiere, Oscar and Tony-nominated actor John C. Reilly joined the project as director. As such, he is responsible for the addition of live music and projected background images, an essential contribution indeed. 

“All that is born dies.” Brenner begins and ends the play with Buddha’s death, thus giving the play a circular structure. In a way, this reflects some of the play’s deepest ideas: in order to achieve enlightenment in life one must first accept the inevitability of death. One must realize that with birth, comes old age, decay, sickness and death; only when one has embraced this fact can one begin to connect to that which is deathless and eternal. Throughout the play, there are several smaller occurances of circular structure. Brenner will begin a story, go on a tangent, come back to the beginning and start again, this time with a new perspective. The same lines and exchanges between characters will repeat themselves at various times over the course of the play. Finally, there are a few instances in which Brenner, with his wonderful performance, seems to capture infinity in a single moment. As a result, the form of the play imitates the content, the narrative thus immersing the audience in the experience. 

This is further achieved as a result of the set and the music. The stage itself is practically bare, with only a bench to one side and a stool in the center. These are draped in yellow and orange while Brenner himself wears simple white; there are no props or makeup. However, there is a white screen draped across the back of the stage, which is lit up with illustrations by a projector on the other side. As the narrative progresses, the color schemes change, settings are portrayed, and hypnotizing patterns appear, all illuminated onto the background screen. It contributes an illustrated fairy-tale sensation to the performance. The live music, played by Jaeger Smith and Sheel Bringi, and consisting of a variety of Indian drums, bamboo flute, and a touch of singing, adds to the fantastical storytelling aura of the play. 

Finally, I must address the theater itself: A literal hole-in-the-wall of downtown L.A., the Bootleg Theater is a hidden gem. As one walks in from the rundown street and into the warmth of the “lobby” (for lack of a better word), one is greeted with a small bar (drinks welcome in the theater!), casual seating, and relaxing, romantic French music. The words jazzy, chill, hip, and just plain cool come to mind. The very graffiti on the bathroom walls contain literary quotes and song lyrics. If you go see “Buddha—A Fantastic Journey” at the Bootleg—which I hope you do—arrive early; take the evening to relax and truly enjoy the immersive experience of this wonderful production. 

Reach reporter Sara Itkis here.



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