the house off upper 16th Street is one of those grand structures with peeling paint, an aging dowager with wrinkles showing under the makeup. But inside all is harmony: low beige velour couches, small tables with carefully placed glass vases and silver bowls, soft carpeting and discreet lighting. The walls of the living room are draped with pleated white curtains, and one end of the room is set off as a sort of stage. A portrait of a man hangs at center stage.
"This house is like a metaphor for what we're aiming for in our lives," said Prof. Pascal Kaplan, "adding beauty and joy to wherever we happen to be."
Kaplan is the producer, in effect, of a theatrical venture called "Celebrating the Heart's Awakening," a musical revue in rhyming couplets that is playing one sold-out performance today and two day-long sessions Saturday and Sunday at the AFI Theater. Kaplan is also a member of a group called Sufism Reoriented, which is centered in the house off 16th Street, and in Orinda, Calif. The portrait on stage is of Meher Baba, the most recent reincarnation of the Messiah, according to Sufism Reoriented.
The connection between the show, which features television actress Francine Tacker of the "Paper Chase" series, and the religious group, which focuses on mysticism, is symbiotic. Kaplan said the group is not trying to proselytize, and so does not advertise the connection, but rather uses the performing arts to reach people who feel spiritually vacuous and show them there is "another level of understanding." Also, the group, which has about 300 members, seems to attract performing artists. Aside from Tacker, who is the biggest "name" member, the company includes a woman who played the lead in the national company of "The Fantasticks" a number of years ago, a violinist from the National Symphony, and a former departmental chairman at the Peabody Institute.
The show, as perhaps the religion, is aimed at the middle-class, over-achieving, well-educated person who is "too smart" for basic religion and disillusioned with psychiatry. One number, for example, is called "Well Brought Up People," and another has a wealthy psychiatrist singing about his swimming pool, antique silver and lavish house. His wife finds she feels -- oh, fearsome affliction -- "thoughtful," and has been thinking about "Him," i.e. God. "The same kind of disillusionment we've had about materialism is now beginning to happen with psychology," Kaplan said.
How is this different from the now-familiar testimony of the born-again, who also speak of spiritual emptiness, disenchantment with materialism, a need for "something more" and a search for values? One difference is that the Sufis believe in reincarnation; another is that they see themselves as ecumenical in the sense of reaching to the mystical facets of other religions.
Nor do they eschew materialism completely. "People think if you're dealing with spiritual things you shouldn't have a nice car, money or nice things," said Kaplan, who is the son of fur designer Jacques Kaplan and a professor of "Consciousness Studies" at the John F. Kennedy University in Orinda. "It is not the things that one has that are important, it is the meaning attached to them. You bring from each -- things, psychology, romantic relationships -- the highest level of learning you can get from them."
Likewise, he said, the choice of a theater in the Kennedy Center was conscious. "It's classy. We didn't want to be seen as some underground, dropped-out, hip group, or an evangelist in a tent. We're doing theater."
Of course it's theater with a message, and a fairly heavy one. Says Kaplan, "Fifteen years ago if you were doing therapy, people who weren't doing it were embarrassed for you; they thought you were crazy. Now everybody talks about it. That same embarrassment is today connected to searching for God, to yearning for a kind of beauty beyond what the culture recognizes as chic. This production is a way of saying 'others feel the same way,' and there is something else."