What’s It All About, Alpie?

2. November, 2012 Theater No comments

Acid Test: The Many Incarnations of Ram Dass is a relative rarity for the Marsh—a solo show not written by the performer. Local writer Lynne Kaufman’s first one-person play, follows the spiritual teacher (and former Marin County resident) on a long, strange series of trips, hallucinogenic and otherwise, that took him from being young Harvard professor Richard Alpert to “Be Here Now” guru Ram Dass.

Warren David Keith in Acid Test. Photo by Patti Meyer.

As usual for the Marsh in either its San Francisco mothership or the Berkeley satellite where this play is performed, there’s hardly any set in director Joel Mullennix’s bare-bones production. There’s just a wicker chair, a side table with some small framed photos on it, and a projection screen in the back. There’s actually surprisingly minimal use of projections in the show—just an occasional blown-up photo when he’s looking at a picture of a key person that he’s talking about.

The show stars Warren David Keith, an actor frequently seen onstage at the Aurora, the Magic, ACT, and Marin Theatre Company, often in sour and acerbic roles. His Ram Dass is refreshingly open and animated, with a beaming smile and talking with his hands a lot. At the beginning he sits with one hand curled in his lap, his diction labored as he explains how a stroke left him with aphasia that makes the words he wants hard to locate. But no sooner does he ask if we’re willing to “surf the silences” with him than he springs to his feet, telling us never mind—“this is a performance, an illusion,” so we can just pretend he has the easy eloquence we want to hear.

His is very much a 1960s story: Born into a rich Jewish family (his father was a lawyer, railroad president and a founder of Brandeis University), Richard Alpert becomes a professor in the social relations department at Harvard University. He and his pal Timothy Leary (“the great trickster,” he calls him, in that ’60s way of mythologizing everything) party at Harvard, get kicked out of Harvard together for tripping with undergrads, and continue the party out in the world, taking tons and tons and tons and tons of hallucinogens. Alpert takes a trek to India in a friend’s expensive Land Rover and gets turned on to Hindu-Buddhist spirituality, comes back and lives with his dad for a while (entertaining his captains-of-industry buddies with his anecdotes, then starts up a commune with some friends. He mentions in passing that he also starts teaching his own spiritual workshops, but doesn’t really get into it.

Perhaps the most curious thing about Acid Test is that it’s about a spiritual seeker and teacher and yet there’s nothing in the play about his beliefs or teachings. There’s the occasional bumper-sticker slogan, such as a couple of nods to his book title Be Here Now, but otherwise his lifelong quest is treated as pure biographical fact. It talks about Alpert meeting his guru in India, but the guru impresses him by telling Alpert a few details of his own recent life that the guru couldn’t possibly know, just like a fortune teller or stage magician, and then by demanding and dropping a megadose of acid without it seeming to affect him. What the guru doesn’t do is actually express any philosophy that might win anybody over. He’s just, you know, a magic dude who really knows how to party.

Even if you don’t put much stock in mind-altering substances as any kind of path to enlightenment, his description of the trips themselves are fascinating at times, and at least entertaining at others. In one, he describes a process of giving up everything that makes up his identity, from his “professorness” to his “Richard Alpertness” until there’s nothing left: “Where’s my body? There’s no body. There’s nobody.” And of course the truest thing about these accounts is his lament that whenever he came down all his great revelatory insights (or what felt like them at the time) were gone, so he had to keep chasing a way to make them stick. A trip to Mexico to play against a local baseball team while tripping is particularly funny, especially the dubious claim that the drug-drenched academics’ very looseness made them unstoppable.

Parts of the show feel a little too pat, including a postscript at the end, but there’s plenty of pop-philosophy comfort food to snack on throughout, gems like, “You do discover that you don’t have to believe everything you think.” The love-everything ethos is kept from becoming too cloying by an amusing running gag about his trying and failing to let go of resentment against healthy life entrepreneur Andrew Weil for getting him kicked out of Harvard. There’s a touching account of taking care of his father when he was dying, and the discussion of his struggle to reconcile his stroke with his idea of grace resonates even though it’s not entirely clear what that idea of grace is in the first place. If you’re already interested in Dass, Leary, and pals, this 70-minute monologue should be a treat, but even if you don’t care about any of that, Acid Test paints an engaging, likeable portrait of a bright, thoughtful guy just trying to get at what it’s all about.

Acid Test: The Many Incarnations of Ram Dass
Through February 17
The Marsh Berkeley
2120 Allston Way
Berkeley, CA

Show #101 of 2012, attended October 27.


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