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To sleep, perchance to dream a vision of Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” on the Brandeis stage

Published: February 13, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.



Have you ever had a dream that shook you to the core and changed the way you look at the world? In “Siddhartha: a Jungian Fantasy in Three Acts with Prelude,” Eric Hill’s adaptation of Herman Hesse’s 1922 novel currently at Brandeis Theater Company’s Laurie Theater in a production running through February 15th, this is exactly what happens.

The play begins with a lecture given by the character of Herman Hesse (Andrew Michael Neiman) about the nature of dreams and their manifestations in reality. Through an explanation of the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Hesse reveals the nature of the story he will be recounting over the course of the evening. We will learn the story of Siddhartha (Levi Rion Ben-Israel), an Indian man from the 6th century BCE in search of the meaning of life, whose life runs parallel to Hesse’s own. Born into a wealthy family, Siddhartha (and, by extension, Hesse) chooses to leave behind all that he has known to search for this meaning, and goes through periods of serenity, reflection, lust over the upper class Kamala (McCaela Donovan), self-hatred, and spirituality before ultimately discovering the inner peace he had been searching for all along.

A premise like this, with two parallel stories about self-discovery, is exactly the kind of thing that, while it has the feel of something I’ve seen a million times, always interests me, and this tale didn’t fail in that regard. The telling of that tale, however, did. Never having read the Hesse novel, it is unclear to me if the fault lies with Hesse himself, Hill for his adaptation, or, in some fashion, both, but the passages of exposition of Hesse’s narration seemed to drag on without any sense of discovery or enlightenment. While his monologues seemed necessary to the structure of the piece, I kept wanting to get back into the scenes of the story itself, letting the tale unfold and speak for itself rather than having that intertwine with Hesse’s expository thoughts.

This is not to say, however, that the production is altogether problematic. The show is carried by a fine set of actors (most in the Brandeis MFA program or professional), lead by the incomparable Levi Ben-Israel and Andrew Michael Neiman in the two main roles. These two actors were particularly well matched not only to their parts but also to each other as the parallel souls the story has them become.

Also of particular note was Equiano Mosieri as Vasudeva, the guardian of the river, who helps and protects Siddhartha on his journey. His strong presence was tempered by a subtle calm in his voice and mannerisms, something very welcome in this visually stunning and active production.

Hsiang-Lin Lee has designed the most lush, beautifully detailed, complex costumes I have seen on any Brandeis stage, having even outdone her previous work on Brandeis Theater Company’s “The Orphan of Zhao.” Chesapeake Westeveer’s scenic design served the production well due to its simplicity in relation to its composition of shapes, colors, and textures. Dave Wilson’s sound design and music was effective and moving, quickly bringing the audience into the world of the play. The weak link of the design team on this show was Jake Bray, whose lighting design added little illumination to the mysteries of the show’s story. While the lighting design did its job highlighting the various sections of the stage, it did not add anything special to the show the way the sets and costumes did.

All in all, this is a show about the magic of self-discovery and the meaning of life, and the journey one man takes in search of them. In realizing this sweeping vision, the show sometimes greatly succeeds and, at others, greatly falters.

But, then again, couldn’t that be the point? Isn’t life just a series of success and failure, all adding up to our own, personal discoveries?

“Siddhartha,” by Herman Hesse, adaptation by Eric Hill; directed by Richard Corley; sets by Chesapeake Westeveer; costumes by Hsiang-Lin Lee; lights by Jake Bray; music and sound by Dave Wilson; stage management by Susanna Quaintance; produced by the Brandeis Theater Company at the Laurie Theater, 415 South Street, Waltham MA 02453; (781) 736-3400. Through February 15th. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.