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Stage Review: A Sorcerer’s Journey, by Single Carrot Theatre

Castaneda seeks a new-age spiritual realm, with help from a witch doctor

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There is only one thing worse than hearing about someone’s drug trip or spiritual experience, and that is seeing it enacted. Whether we think of the psychedelic experience as therapeutic (as the Hopkins Psilocybin tests do), spiritual, or recreational, it is purely subjective and generally rather boring. The terrible acid scene in Easy Rider wasn’t quite enough to ruin the movie, but when the same crew made The Trip, it was unwatchable.

Single Carrot’s A Sorcerer’s Journey brings together both the visual elements and the language of the 1960s new-age spiritualism as anthropologist Carlos Castaneda learns the ways of the drug-induced spirit world from a Native American shaman puppet, played by a white girl (Hannah Lewis).

The puppets, which the actors hold in front of their faces and manipulate, in Single Carrot Theatre’s adaptation of Castaneda’s books about the teachings of Don Juan, an indigenous witch doctor, were actually really cool, with intense sparkling eyes. But they also served a dramatic purpose: Part of the plot revolves around the fact that scholars and reporters have questioned the veracity of the books of Castaneda, who was an anthropologist and claimed scientific validity for his mystical work. They claimed he invented Don Juan, so seeing the Indian master as puppet keeps that mystery alive by separating real people from literary characters. (It also kept anyone from having to go all Johnny Depp and do Indian blackface.) Still, Lewis as Don Juan talked kind of like that Indian who cried in the pollution commercial in the ’70s, all stilted and profound.

There is an interesting story to tell in the controversy surrounding Castaneda’s work (Baltimore native Mike Sager told it in “The Teachings of Don Carlos”), but in Single Carrot’s version, the academic and the reporter who question Castaneda’s account aren’t serious characters at all—they come across so stupid and smug that they offer little of the drama I was hoping they might lend.

Castaneda reportedly found this witch doctor Don Juan and, from him, learned about mescalito (peyote), the devil’s weed (datura), and smoke (mushroom powder), and despite some impressive shadow-puppetry behind the scenes, it comes off about as you think a drug scene might come across.

The play seeks to present a new-age spiritual realm, but unfortunately—to paraphrase a Baltimore mystic—that realm is a place, a place whether nothing, nothing ever happens. Sure, Castaneda turns into a crow, but despite that, he doesn’t really change or develop as a character and neither does anyone else.

There are a couple cool moments in the play and some interesting visual effects, but they are not enough to escape the fact that each character has his or her position staked out before the play begins and that nothing is subsequently gained or lost.

Maybe it is because I read the Don Juan books when I first started smoking weed in high school, but I found myself wishing I was stoned throughout the play. Then again, maybe the complimentary Boh was better, because in the end, A Sorcerer’s Journey reminded me of my last mushroom trip: I learned a few interesting lessons, but eventually I just couldn’t wait for it to end.

At Single Carrot Theatre through June 30.

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