The antithesis of the sorcerer is to be fixed in time; be it recorded or photographed, this is a living world and in order for the sorcerer to fully understand and complete his journey he must remain living and moving. Bizarre mysticism and spirituality overtakes the perimeters of normalcy in the world premier of A Sorcerer’s Journey at Single Carrot Theatre as they close their season. Conceived as an ensemble work by members of the company, with a script by Alix Fenhagen, this work explores, albeit more linearly and with a more focused narrative than other ensemble works in the past, the teachings and research of Carlos Castaneda. An approach to accessing alternate realities, or perhaps debunking what is truth and what is fiction in his work, this performance, directed by Nathan Fulton, is in itself a journey through a fixed point of reality with some surreal moments sprinkled along the path.
Set Designers Joey Bromfield and Emily Rodekohr transport the audience into the south-western US before the show even begins, taking great pains to replicate the texture of the arid territory. The ground laid out to look like the cracked and desolate water-starved plateau is the most stunning feature, incredibly textured and a perfect visual aid for being enveloped in the scene. The mural style backdrop is painted with muted tones of the landscape, echoing the heated climate and creating a sense of forbidden beauty; a gorgeous scene to look at, beholding within it all the mystery and dangers of the south-western desert.
Sound Designer Dan Cassin further heightens the experience of traveling to the native lands with the pre-show and scene-shift music. All Native American in origin, these musical scores draw the audience further into the reality that has been created. There are moments spiked with desert sounds, from the rattling of what is presumably a dangerous snake to the rush of dry wind across the parched and barren ground. Combining these sounds with the intense drums heard during scenes of out of body travel really completes the experience.
Adding a true sense of mystical existence to the production is the strange imagery produced by Video and Projection Designer Meredith Seller. Augmenting the times that young Carlos spends ‘traveling’ out of his body are truly unusual images and video footage, designed in places to give the audience the bird’s eyes view of the landscape. There are certain segments of video and projection that become extremely bizarre, mimicking what one can only imagine a trip of that nature must be like.
The work itself is rather straight forward, jumping neatly back and forth in time from when Carlos was with Don Juan, his mentor (portrayed in half-body puppetry, designed by Lisi Stoessel) and Castaneda in the present or distant future from his younger self. The choice to split Carlos from himself as Castaneda and then have the older/now-time version present in the space often watching his past unfold is a unique and daring choice that distorts reality in a manner befitting of the play’s subject matter.
Fenhagen, as the book’s writer, crafts a character to critique Castaneda’s work; a person intent on proving that he was nothing more than a glorified allegorist. The character of “The Critic” (Maddie Hicks) while amusing at times, especially when she’s storming the scene to declare that Castaneda’s use of haphazard Spanish words is unjustified, becomes superfluously gratuitous. The character doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose in these moments and detracts from the overall arch of the show. If the intent was to have this character really pull apart all the truths that Castaneda’s work stood on, that drive gets lost somewhere along the way and the character starts to just become the occasional nuisance rather than the driving force of reality.
Director Nathan Fulton infuses the dance and movement based work that Single Carrot is known for in a much more subtle approach for this work. Fulton takes the ‘enemies of man’ as described by Don Juan, and embodies them as a human behind a mask. Fear, Clarity, Power, and Old Age, (all played by Maddie Hicks in a truly passionate manner) creep their way into the scene when being mentioned, using that movement-based dance style to shift and exist in the space. This particular use of movement enhances the presence of these fears making them a reality for Carlos as he discovers them.
As far as the main three performers go they are each grounded in their own ever-present existence, the most so being Alix Fenhagen playing the older/present version of Castaneda. Although when she speaks she speaks with the character’s mingled clarity of having taken such spiritual journeys, it’s when she’s just observing or sitting in completely stillness that really captivates the audience. Fenhagen has a presence on stage that defies the normality of human existence in the sense that she is everywhere while being contained in a single space. This is most befitting considering the subject matter.
Mastering the physicality of the puppet is Hannah Lewis as the wise old shaman Don Juan. The character itself falls into Native American stereotypes, being sagely with peculiar riddles that make him laugh when no one else gets the joke. Lewis does an impeccable job of balancing the vocal tone as well as the emotional presence of her character and moves with a swift fluidity, body and puppet becoming one in this production. Lewis also creates a detachment of sorts from the puppet, letting its head exist as more of a free floating element, which truly works for this mystical character.
Ryan Dunne, playing Carlos, is not as fluid or well-composed working his puppet, however, this is not as distracting as one would initially think. Because Carlos the character is so eager and over-enthusiastic to learn, as well as desperately confused and perplexed once the teaching process begins, this disconnect between puppet and puppeteer seems to be a purposeful character choice made by Dunne. His neutral tone for questioning things makes those moments when he does have an emotional outbreak that much more intense.
A Sorcerer’s Journey is indeed a unique work, but very explorative in nature, and well worth examining.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
A Sorcerer’s Journey plays through June 30, 2013 at Single Carrot Theatre— 1727 North Charles Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 844-9253, or purchase them online.