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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Oct 8 1997
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"Words do not express thoughts very well," Hermann Hesse once wrote. "They always become a little different immediately after they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish." The quote provides the impetus for the Umo Ensemble's Caravan of Dreams, the performance troupe's take on Hesse's Siddhartha and the group's unique approach to physical theater (the "theater of connectedness"). It's the second half of Hesse's quote, however, that resonates throughout tonight's performance by the veteran Washington state-based company: "And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another."
Siddhartha, of course, is the Nobel Prize-winning Hesse's spiritualistic novel of the life of Buddha. The nearly sold-out crowd at Theater Artaud settles into its bleacher-style seating with a bounty of chuckles and much chair-creaking. There is liberal talk of past Umo performances ("Did you catch El Dorado? That was Umo at their best"), literary criticism of Hesse ("He was a great thinker, but just a mediocre writer, don't you think?"), appraisals of Siddhartha ("It was an extremely accessible novel, even for a 15-year-old. Of course, it means different things to me now"), philosophical queries ("Do you think existentialism is only a matter of posture?"), spiritual quandaries ("I'm not sure if meditation is possible for Americans"), collegiate complaints ("The professor is a nimrod. I've got to transfer out"), and romantic dilemmas ("After this, can we just go get a burger or something?").

A sudden sprout of flame silences the babble. Musician Ela Lamblin, dressed in a scarlet turban and matching pants, begins pulling an Indian-style rickshaw across the ruddy floor, twining his way through five black slings that hang from the ceiling. Although only two pairs of feet are seen protruding from the cart, the tires turn slowly, flattening out under some great weight. A chorus of voices comes from the rickshaw, and everywhere else at once, filling the room with a euphonious, alien chant that sounds like "tiki ta tiki tiki ta."

When Lamblin stops, five djools spring from the small vehicle, like clowns released from a tiny car. They are romantic figures -- part English fool, part Arabic djinn (fire imp), part East Indian ascetic, and part Romany trickster -- who sing and jabber with scatlike fluidity. Lamblin moves side-stage and adds a multitude of homemade instruments to the strange song. The djools dance wildly, with angular poses redolent of most temple dancing: legs spread, feet out, toes up, eyes wide. They make faces. They stare directly into eyes in the audience. People laugh.

Martha Enson steps forward. Tremendous red braids leap about her head like serpents. "Between living and dreaming, there is a third thing," she calls out to the audience. Her fellow djools murmur and wiggle. "Guess it!" "Guess it! Guess it! Guess it!" she shouts until the command becomes ludicrous and unbearably funny in its repetition. She rejoins the throng.

"I've been living on the lip of insanity," says Kevin Joyce in a stylized spiraled jester's cap and baggy striped pants. He shoves out his lip as demonstration.

"A good traveler has no fixed plans," says Esther Edelman, a baby doll with wild face paint and a floor-length black braid, "and is not intent upon arriving."

"Die, while still living," shouts Janet McAlpin with precision. Dressed in warrior garb with red face paint that evokes Kali, the goddess of destruction, McAlpin would be the most alarming of the group if it were not for the bow on top of her head. "Be absolutely dead and do whatever you want. It's all good."

"The seeds of discontent are pricking at me," says the ever-sensitive David Godsey in harlequin pants. "Is not the discovery of the innermost self the most important path? Who will teach us?" His anguish is palpable. This is the introduction to Siddhartha's quest for atman (self) with texts borrowed from Bunan, Robert Frost, Lao Tzu, Machado, Rumi, and Gertrude Stein.

According to Hesse (and to Enson, who directed this production), the first step on Siddhartha's road to enlightenment was the way of the ascetic, or saddhu, who must follow the precepts of yoga (discipline), bhatiki (devotion), jnana (knowledge), and karma (action). During this phase the performers hang in the slings trying, in vain, to block out the constant assault of thought and emotion as represented by their own yammering. Finally, McAlpin is defeated, crying with some relief that "practicing doesn't help." She asks that the spectators close their eyes and try not to feel. When we admit that it doesn't work she says that we now know everything that she has learned in all of her meditation. Someone in the audience whispers, "That is so true."

The second step was the way of the disciple. The djools don robes and go abroad in search of the Buddha, but when they find him, Godsey realizes that he must follow his own path. The rest of the djools agree, following him. A surreal game of tag ensues.

The third step was that of the courtesan, during which Godsey learns the art of kama (sensuous love). It is the most difficult step to bear; Godsey is deserted and reduced to a state of desperation, during which he beseeches an audience member to "touch." When the woman finally complies, several people in the crowd wonder aloud why it took her so long.

The fourth step finds Joyce immersed in the world of commerce, which leaves him gibbering like a drunk with severe DTs. Acrobatics and playing jump-rope with someone else's hair cannot hide the lesson.

Finally, Edelman shouts that she tried to throw it all away, but it all came back. "It's attached," she cries swinging into the audience from her sling. "I'm in it! We're all in it."

The performance is nothing short of enchanting. The impression left by the otherworldly richness in lights, movement, music, costumes, and acting can only be compared to that of a first visit to Cirque du Soleil. But here, the story seems as important as the splendor.

"I suppose that's as clear as Buddhism can be made in an hour and a half," mutters Sandra Lassing as she exits the theater. Lassing admits that she is not a student of Buddhism, or of Hesse, but that the humanity of the piece touched her nonetheless. "It was so beautiful, and sad, and funny, too," she says shaking her head as the mild night air envelops her.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

By Silke Tudor

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Silke Tudor

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