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Monday, April 22, 2013

The Marsh's Acid Test Tests the Limits of Boomers' Affection for Ram Dass

Posted By on Mon, Apr 22, 2013 at 11:25 AM

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Lynne Kaufman's Acid Test: The Many Incarnations of Ram Dass, now at the Marsh SF after an extended run at the Marsh's Berkeley venue, doesn't feel like a work of theater -- and not in a good way.

The 90-minute play about the rich-kid-turned-Ivy-League-professor-turned-psychedelic -turned-spiritual guru is a solo show -- a format that's already relatively untheatrical. Performer Warren David Keith has almost nothing to separate him from the audience. His only set is a chair and an end table that holds photos of important people from his life, as well as a projection screen that allows audiences to see larger versions of those pictures.

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The Marsh specializes in solo shows, and many of its productions blur the already hazy boundaries among theater and storytelling and stand-up. Kaufman's piece takes it a step further by blurring the boundaries between solo shows and real life.

Her freewheeling script looks a lot like what would probably happen if the real Ram Dass were to give a talk on the most important people and events from his life. There are a few vividly recounted anecdotes amid a bunch of vague shorthand -- "Some of those trips are just mega-fun," or "Look, it was the '60s" -- and loopy New Age professions -- "I chose healing over a cure," and "The stronger medicine is love. Now I had the answer."

At times Kaufman gives Keith enough material for him to craft a moment of sublime comedy. In a you-couldn't-make-this-up story about playing baseball in Mexico under the influence of LSD, Keith's searching eyes seem to make the very contours of the theater melt into waves as he mimes holding a baseball bat the way a little girl might hold a parasol.

Elsewhere, though, Keith is infrequently able to add flavor to the insipid lines, and director Joel Mullennix's staging is of scant help, doing little more than switching Keith from seated to standing and from one side of the stage to the other with clockwork regularity.

Kaufman's piece is too bound by chronology. Although Dass has had a fascinating life, the predictable bio-play sucks the life out of it. And as told by an intermittently competent storyteller, Acid Test makes Ram Dass look like the opposite of how those who love him want to remember him: as a dithering old man we listen to only out of politeness.

Acid Test: The Many Incarnations of Ram Dass continues through May 18 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia Street, S.F. Admission is $15-$50.

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Lily Janiak


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