Martin Epstein's "The Man Who Killed the Buddha" is a simple theatrical fable, nestled deceptively in a complex web of metaphysics. The metaphysics may befuddle you, as metaphysics is sometimes wont to do. But there's no denying that this tale of a Japanese eager beaver named Kenji, who spends 19 years of his life in cheerful servitude, polishing an invisible statue of Buddha, is enacted with playful charm at the Round House Theatre.
Indeed, in a theater season that so far has been relatively short on gratifications, the recent rehabilitation of the Round House is a blessing. "The Man Who Killed the Buddha" bears about as much resemblance to the season's opener, Sam Shepard's fierce "Fool for Love," as Japanese pen-and-ink drawings do to Jackson Pollock's action paintings. But the Silver Spring company has no difficulty changing spots -- or styles. Under the artistic leadership of Jerry Whiddon, who has directed "Buddha" with once-upon-a-time directness, it again seems bursting with promise and talent.
The directness is the trick. Epstein may be saying that we are incapable of penetrating the divine mysteries, that we create our own gods and then betray them while the true deity looks on and laughs, albeit good-naturedly, at our spiritual fumblings. Kenji (Mark Jaster) is certainly no wiser for his years of apprenticeship at the 1,000-year-old Doji Shrine than he is when he first arrives, a willing young peasant thirsting for enlightenment. But Whiddon and his cast aren't going for the conundrums. They're out to tell a sometimes comical, sometimes bizarre story about the exploitation of a sweet innocent in quest of sainthood. The conundrums will take care of themselves in due time.
You might even describe "Buddha" as an oriental Punch and Judy show. The action, which unfolds on a bare Kabuki stage with a musician off to one side providing accompaniment on a synthesizer, is merely a succession of encounters -- each one testing Kenji's resolve. It's not enough that he has to convince himself he's polishing a statue when he's really just dusting space. He's got to cope with the master of the shrine (Richard DeAngelis), forever tipsy on plum wine; the crass school chum (Steven LeBlanc), who married his childhood sweetheart and wants to gloat about it; a swaggering houseboy (Daniel Yates), who dreams of lusty adventures in the wide world; and even that sweetheart (Kathy Yarman), who returns, a pliant widow this time, determined to lure Kenji into matrimony.
All of them question his faith; at the same time they kick him around rather like an old sandbag. Then, just when Kenji has had enough, the great divinity himself (Jim Wilder) appears in all his massive folds of flesh. But he turns out to be the final enigma, as resistant to explanation as he is to Kenji's bow and arrow. Has Kenji's life been merely "joke after joke after joke"? Or is there in Buddha's twinkling smile the promise of meaning? Here we are suddenly pondering man's relationship to his god.
The Round House crew has us just where they want us -- in a philosophical corner. And yet this production is so disarmingly open, so frisky, so unpretentious that you may wonder how you got there. Is it possible that metaphysics can be fun? Jaster, who combines the sad befuddlement of the clown with the joyful dexterity of the acrobat, sets the prevailing tone. He makes an inherently likable patsy, touching in his resilience, gallant in defeat. Yates' enactment of the adventures he's really too frightened to undertake is a grand illustration of macho posturing. All of the performances, in fact, seem born of child's play -- something not always within the grasp of adults. Clearly, Whiddon's artistic leadership has made a difference in a company that last season was violently erratic.
The same sense of selectivity that governs the acting characterizes Richard H. Young's set, a lean stage-within-the-stage; Jane Williams' lighting, an artful blend of white and shadow; and Ric Thomas Rice's unassuming, but telling costumes. "The Man Who Killed the Buddha" even finds a place for a collection of garish puppets, wittily designed by Lynnie Raybuck. They function as a busload of American tourists, come to gape and gawk at the unwitting saint who's spent a lifetime polishing the void. "What does he hope to accomplish?" barks one.
That's the puzzler, all right, in this quirky, original play. "The Man Who Killed the Buddha," which runs through Dec. 22, will tease your brain cells. But first, it will tickle your fancy. The order is significant. What you don't know about philosophy won't dampen your enjoyment one bit.
The Man Who Killed the Buddha. By Martin Epstein. Directed by Jerry Whiddon. Set, Richard H. Young; lighting, Jane Williams; costumes, Ric Thomas Rice; puppets, Lynnie Raybuck. With Mark Jaster, Richard DeAngelis, Steven LeBlanc, Daniel Yates, Kathy Yarman, Jim Wilder, Chris Patton. At the Round House Theatre through Dec. 22.