Spotlight: Gotama

Siddhattha Gotama took a famously circuitous route to cosmic enlightenment that included years of orgiastic excess and indulgence of the flesh (sign me up) followed by a monk's lifestyle of severe self-denial and privation (I'll get off here, thanks). A subsequent realization that starving oneself to death is not the epitome of spiritually healthy behavior led to enlightenment and Buddha status, a process depicted in Gotama with sometimes astounding assurance. Aditi Brennan Kapil's script starts at the end, with loyal servant Channa (Julian McFaul) begging Gotama to eat something, lest he expire. From here we go back in time to Prince Gotama's insanely opulent childhood, his overall excellence at everything, and the events that trigger his long search for understanding. Director Andrew Kim and designer Masanari Kawahara propel the action by restlessly moving from medium to medium as events unfold. In addition to puppets, the narrative is goosed along by projections, shadow figures, and even the odd bit of slapstick (the cockeyed grin inherent in Buddhist belief is well represented). Laura Harada and Tim O'Keefe provide musical accompaniment, employing a wide range of strings and percussion in a score that nicely captures both the yearning and the restless seeking that we see onstage. In the final third of the show Gotama appears in the form of a puppet who is about three-quarters the size of a real person, and this figure's stoic remoteness underlines the frightening path of self-denial the prince has taken. (His entrance, half-starved and gaunt, is accompanied by Harada's plaintive violin in a moving moment.) By the time Gotama has his flash of insight (not to spoil the ending or anything, but human life is suffering and desire is the source of suffering. So there.), we've been treated to an array of stagecraft and visual devices that add to the transcendence without providing needless distraction. Lovely, meditative, at times sublime.