The Buddha Play
nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
September 17, 2009
The Buddha sought a deep simplicity in life—the ultimate oneness, if you will—so it's appropriate that the new dramatization of his life now running at Baruch College is as simple as it gets...it's nothing more than creator/actor Evan Brenner reciting the story in the first person. But the story is so compelling on its own terms, and Brenner is so invested in it, you'll be perfectly okay with that. In fact, anything more would probably be overdoing it.
One-person shows can be the ultimate exercise in self-indulgence, so it's a pleasant surprise that this one is actually an effective vehicle for the story of history's most selfless figure. Brenner starts the show as himself, sacked out in an old armchair, reading a book about the Buddha in a living room strewn with dozens more of them. He reads us one sentence in the third person, and repeats it to himself...then after a moment's thought, sets the book down and begins telling Buddha's epic tale as if it were his own. Not an impersonation, not as an actor playing the character of the Buddha, but as himself: a modern man trying to find greater spirituality by living through and understanding the Buddha's experiences. Through Brenner's own spiritual quest we can see our own, and it gives the story greater resonance.
He is supported by some simple but effective design choices. Hong Sooyeon's lighting, along with subtle underscoring of Philip Glass recordings, augments the story's key moments tastefully. And Nikki Black's unobtrusively beautiful set fuses the familiar (armchair and books) with the ancient (towering pillars of Buddhist texts), to create an atmosphere that feels both intimate and epic. Director David Fuhrer keeps the pacing relaxed but always engaging. It never feels "directed," in the best possible way.
The Buddha Play may be honest and intelligent, but it's certainly not fancy, and the lack of pizzazz will definitely be lost on some viewers. Like a group meditation session, there are some people who will find its calming nature deep and insightful, and others who will simply get restless and bored. What you get out of The Buddha Play will really come down to your connection to the story, since the story is what you're getting. No more and no less.