The Spotlight: Evan Brenner in 'Buddha: A Fantastic Journey'
The first thing you notice about Evan Brenner, who plays Buddha in a new one-man show at the Bootleg Theater, is that he looks nothing like the pot-bellied, crossed-legged, jolly-looking figure of popular imagination. Brenner’s a lean, middle-aged Jewish guy who grew up in New York.
Never mind that the ancient spiritual leader was probably pretty thin himself. The point of “Buddha — A Fantastic Journey,” which was just extended through April 1, is to show that everyone has a bit of Buddha inside him — starting with Brenner himself.
Brenner, an actor and filmmaker from privileged beginnings, began what he reluctantly calls his “midlife crisis” at age 40. Money and mind-altering substances, in the form of a just-sold hedge fund and a lot of alcohol, weren't leading to spiritual fulfillment.
“Relating it to the play,” Brenner says, “I was unhappy living in the world of consumption.”
That’s the first episode of Brenner’s 70-minute play, a dramatic retelling of the Buddha’s life and times. Brenner started developing it several years ago, after his midlife crisis wouldn’t go away.
Nothing was working — not mind-body integration practices, movement education, self-help or meditation. That’s when Brenner recalled his one-time fascination with Buddhism, which began in high school and continued through college. He decided to turn to the sutras, a massive collection of the oldest Buddhist texts, for insight into transcending his earthly suffering.
What he found was a lot more than new breathing techniques. In the sutras, Brenner discovered a story, a “whirlwind, momentum-driven” narrative buried beneath mounds of religious teachings, aphorisms and parables.
Around that same time, a friend took Brenner to see a screening of Alec McCowen’s solo performance of “The Gospel According to St. Mark.”
Suddenly, Brenner’s path revealed itself.
“If Alec McCowen could do it with Jesus,” he asked himself, “couldn’t I assemble a life of the Buddha?”
It would take two years of writing and three years of intermittent workshops. Brenner performed the play at charity benefits, churches, colleges, living rooms, from Boston to San Francisco, Philadelphia to Denver, New York to Los Angeles.
In Los Angeles, Brenner invited his longtime friend John C. Reilly, an actor most recently seen in the movie “Carnage,” to a performance. Reilly liked it, but said he thought it “really could benefit from being a little more illustrative and a little more exciting theatrically.”
So Brenner asked Reilly to do something with it — and Reilly, who had been thinking about breaking into directing, agreed.
“My interest in the project really didn’t come from my interest in Buddhism; it came from my interest in Evan as a storyteller,” Reilly says. “And the actual life story of [Buddha] was fascinating. I had no idea how human he was.”
At that point, the play was just a lecture, Reilly says. He added a simple set and some live Indian music, and gave Brenner performance notes.
Brenner can’t say enough about Reilly’s contributions. “It’s much more fun now than it’s ever been,” he says. “I feel like I’m driving a bigger vehicle.”
Although Reilly and Brenner share a common interest in Buddhism and meditation, neither of them self-identifies as Buddhist. They say it’s not the point of the show to convert people. It’s merely to get people thinking about the path they’re on, and whether it’s the right one. Some people need change — like “the classic older guy who’s still trying to act like a younger guy,” Brenner says.
“We understand that that’s poignant and sad because it’s clear that he hasn’t persisted on the adventure,” he said.
— Jason Kehe
Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Sundays, with select Thursday performances and 3 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Ends April 1. $30. (800) 838-3006 or www.thebuddhaplay.com
Photo: Evan Brenner. Credit: Phoebe Sudrow