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Disturbing the Universe

The Berkshire Theatre Festival premieres a dreamlike "Siddhartha" (July 7-31, 2004)

Eric Hill’s quirky but fascinating adaptation of “Siddhartha” is subtitled “A Jungian Fantasy.” It’s a surreal landscape in which Hermann Hesse’s symbol-laden chronicle of a spiritual quest emerges from the author’s dreams, amid memories of his own youth and imagined conversations with two students of the subconscious: Carl Jung and that master dream-sifter, Sigmund Freud. The world Hill creates is, like dreams themselves, eclectic and irrational—a place where ancient and modern, reality and fancy intertwine.

The stage is dominated by a towering flight of rough-hewn stone steps, evoking a temple from some lost civilization. But to one side, a wine bottle and an empty glass sit tantalizingly on a contemporary café table. And center stage a placard announces “Welcome to the Magic Theater—Not for Everyone”—a reference taken from Hesse’s other masterpiece, “Steppenwolf.”

And this “Siddhartha” is not, in fact, for everyone. It beckons to those who can put aside their naturalistic expectations of drama. What we get instead is a whimsical, poetic, intellectually ambitious and visually entrancing theatrical medley—part narrative, part biography, part hallucination. Into a stylized dramatization of Hesse’s 1922 novella, Hill weaves passages from the author’s memoirs and other writings, as well as fragments of Jung, Freud and even T.S. Eliot.

Our host on this journey is Hesse himself, engagingly played by Andrew Michael Nieman. Seated in an antique wheelchair, with wire-rim spectacles perched on his nose and a mercurial smile playing on his lips, he describes the “train of thought” that led him to dream the story of Siddhartha. He introduces us to his analyst, Carl Jung, and to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious—the archetypal pool of race memories shared by people in all ages and cultures.

This concept pervades Hill’s “Siddhartha.” The adaptor/director has created what you might call a new archetype. The figures in Hesse’s dream life are streaked with white clay, giving them a ghostly, vaguely aboriginal quality. The movement in the narrative sections is highly stylized, sometimes trancelike, recalling the ritualistic stagecraft of Hill’s own guru, Japanese postmodern director Tadashi Suzuki. Yoshi Tanokura’s spare set, Carleton Coffrin’s subtle lighting, Nathan Leigh’s evocative sound design and Marija Djordjevic’s monochrome costumes all contribute to the production’s timeless feel.

Three spirits in flowing, colorless robes haunt the stage. They are Sarasvati, Shakti and Lakshmi, Hindu goddesses of creativity, prosperity and cosmic energy, played by Jill Michael, Erin Gorski and Isadora Wolfe. Hesse calls them his “spirit guides” and says it is they who “revealed” the story of Siddhartha to him. The goddesses narrate the tale of the Brahmin’s son who, like his namesake who became the Buddha, leaves behind wealth and comfort to pursue the elusive goal of self-knowledge and inner peace.

The story follows Siddhartha through years of harsh asceticism, accompanied by his childhood friend Govinda (John Lysaght), into a period in which he is seduced by the world in all its material riches and carnal pleasures, only to renounce them again, ultimately finding a middle way in the humble service of a ferryboat oarsman (Brian Sell) on that endlessly flowing river of life. It’s in the middle, worldly section that the wine bottle comes into play. Looking on from the sidelines while the narrative unfolds in his mind’s eye, Hesse becomes progressively drunk as he watches his fictional alter ego wallowing in the fleshpots.

Siddhartha’s spiritual travels symbolize the quest of the artist in search of his inmost self. They are the distillation of Hesse’s own mystical journey, when he immersed himself in Hindu and Buddhist philosophies and concluded that he couldn’t be both an artist—“a man of fantasy,” as he put it—and a bourgeois family man.

This theatrical ritual is enacted by a strong young ensemble of 12, almost all of them former students of Hill’s at the University of Connecticut. Jereme Anglin plays both Jung and the Buddha, the former a wild-eyed, wild-haired visionary, the latter an impassive stoic with cracks running through his stony face like an ancient statue. Brad Kilgore plays the young, ascetic Siddhartha with a fervid intensity, and Michael McComisky plays Hesse’s younger self, who later becomes the worldly Siddhartha, learning the arts of love from the wealthy courtesan Kamala, playfully performed by Isadora Wolfe.

In this passage, when Kamala first meets Siddhartha—to all appearances a dirty beggar—she asks him, “What can you do?” To which he offers the three disciplines he has practiced as a traveling ascetic: “I can think, I can wait, and I can fast.” Adding that he can also compose poetry, he recites, not a Vedic poem, but an anachronistic snatch of T.S. Eliot’s ode to the mundane life, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “And indeed there will be time / To wonder, Do I dare? and, Do I dare? /... Do I dare disturb the universe?”

As the placard says, this magic theater isn’t for everyone. But for the adventurous seeker of theatrical invention and intellectual nourishment, “Siddhartha” provides tasty food for thought... and spirit.

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