Tuesday, October 9, 2018

"Acid Test: The Many Reincarnations of Ram Dass"

Acid Test: The Many Reincarnations of Ram Dass
Lynne Kaufman

Warren David Keith
Carrying his upturned, paralyzed hand with both proud dignity and obvious discomfort, the old gentleman enters limping with a smile genuine and glowing while his words creep out slowly.  “Thank you for being here ... now.”  Explaining that “I was stroked,” he continues to describe what it is now like to live in a world of aphasia.  “It is like my words are stored in a closet ... stuck ... When I pull the door open, things are not stored where I put them.”

That gentle sense of humbleness, honesty, and humor will be a continual thread for the next eighty minutes of what will be a mixture of masterful storytelling, professorial lecture, and off-the-cuff spontaneity.  Or so it will at least sometimes seem that the Ram Dass in front of us is often just elucidating whatever is coming to his head at the moment, even though we know that we are being enraptured by the scripted performance of a gifted actor.  Warren David Keith revives his 2012, world premiere role as Ram Dass in the one-person show, Acid Test: The Many Reincarnations of Ram Dass, written by renowned, local playwright Lynne Kaufman and now on stage once again at The Marsh, San Francisco. 

Once he sheds his paralyzed self and stands before us as a genial, energetic (but now healthy) elderly man, Mr. Keith embodies with equal amounts of grace and gusto the renowned spiritual teacher and LSD pioneer, Ram Dass. He proceeds to relate a life journey of a man who was once Richard Albert – son of a wealthy Jewish family and a former psychology professor at Harvard.  That tenure ended when Dr. Albert became the first professor at Harvard to be fired since Ralph Waldo Emerson – an accomplishment the now Ram Dass seems to wear proudly – fired because he was giving LSD to students as part of his experiments on the magical, mind-expanding effects of psychedelics. 

His introduction to LSD came after meeting by chance Timothy Leary in Italy (who was biking the countryside and “living by bouncing checks”). That encounter led to a long friendship with the famed LSD advocate and to his first psychedelic trip via magic mushrooms (“flesh of the gods”), during which he finds himself inside a rose bud and shedding petal by petal all his former self.  His life pursuit becomes to find inner peace and to discover some absolute truth that will stand the test of time. 

His searching will take him around the world, including playing baseball with locals in Mexico while he and some Harvard colleagues are tripping the light fantastic as well as chasing in Katmandu and the mountainous countryside after a young, handsome guy from Southern California whom he only refers to as “Blonde Guy” or “Laguna Beach.”  That latter accidental meeting leads him eventually to meet a maharaja who “was like an open door to God” that “I stepped through.”  Realizing “it was like he knew everything about me,” our wanderer finds himself kissing the feet of he who becomes the guru who teaches him the meaning of unconditional love as well as names him “Ram Dass” (or “servant of God”).

These and many other stories flow like a stream of memories being recalled in whatever sequence Ram remembers them -- often with some pauses for his own reflection ... often with a moment’s interaction in a personal manner with us, his audience.  We soon forget that we are in a theatre and this is an actor.  We are in the presence of a man who has experienced hundreds of psychedelic trips in his lifetime and who now talks to us with much sparkle of spirit and with also a calming sense of inner peace as he advocates, “Let’s be in the present.”  From him we are learning, “This moment is fine; be here now.”

Nancy Carlin directs the seamless stream of recollections Warren David Keith recounts as he convincingly portrays Ram Dass.  Together, director and actor have teamed to deliver Ms. Kaufman’s script in a mode that never feels like a play.  We just happen to be lucky enough to be here today when Ram Dass has come back to life.  We are here to learn from this once professor, later spiritual pioneer.  And, we leave wondering if there is much more good and positive in LSD and other psychedelics than perhaps many of us had been led to believe.

Rating:  4 E

Acid Test: The Many Reincarnations of Ram Dass continues Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 5:30 p.m. through November 4, 2018 at the San Francisco Marsh, 1062 Valencia Street.  Tickets are available online at https://themarsh.org/.

Photo Credit: Phyllis Christopher

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