‘Acid Test’ presents unique, personal look into Ram Dass’ life

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The spiritual teacher Ram Dass has lived a full life. Evolving from academia to spirituality and the many intricacies of life in between, the 87-year-old has a lot of stories to tell. These real-life stories are told in the form of a one-man play, “Acid Test: The Many Incarnations of Ram Dass.” The play, while a bit drawn-out, takes on the voice of Ram Dass to tell his life story in a production that is interesting, exuberant, and full of one unique person’s essence.

Actor Warren David Keith takes on the role of Ram Dass — born as Richard Alpert — in “Acid Test,” written by veteran playwright Lynne Kaufman. Structured in the form of Ram Dass giving a talk, the play follows him as he tells stories from his life. The stories move from his time as a professor at Harvard to his introduction to psychedelics and beyond. Directed by Nancy Carlin, the play premiered at The Marsh in San Francisco on Sept. 21, and is playing through Nov. 4.

This play spans a lifetime, bringing attention to experiences lived by a real person. The grasp on this person’s voice needs to be strong and vivid and, in Kaufman’s writing, it undeniably is. Every line spoken by the character onstage feels realistic and natural. Each story flows seamlessly into the next, mirroring the natural progression of oral storytelling. Kaufman’s grasp on Ram Dass is the driving aspect of the play; without a clear understanding of this person’s essence, the play just wouldn’t work.

Additionally, a fitting and strong actor stepping into the role is essential. Keith’s portrayal of Ram Dass is incredibly organic and captivating. It is easy to forget that this is an actor portraying a person, rather than a man telling an audience about his own life. The evoking of memories — of family, loss and transitions — appears to stem from a genuine place of personal connection. Portraying a real person is tricky, yet Keith’s natural embodiment of Ram Dass makes it look effortless. This allows for the audience members to let themselves be fully transfixed by the events onstage — an often overlooked but crucial element to theater.

Ram Dass’ stories span immensely in tone; sometimes they’re incredibly humorous, and sometimes they’re more heartbreaking. Whether Ram Dass is telling the story of his first mushroom trip or the story of his father dying, the strengths of Kaufman and Keith are perfectly melded together.

The only real issue with the play is a technical one: the stage blocking. The play is essentially a monologue; it is one man speaking, without any action actively happening. This is rare, even for a one-person show. It makes the question of what the actor should do while speaking quite precarious. There are multiple moments when the blocking becomes noticeably unnatural. Ram Dass spends a lot of time switching from one chair onstage to a different chair on the other side of the stage — it’s noticeable and distracting and doesn’t match the otherwise natural atmosphere that the play conveys.

The topics are somewhat niche, being so specific to one man’s life; this may limit audience interest, and the play does run on a little longer than necessary. But overall, this piece is a pure and interesting look into the unique nuances of one person’s life. “Acid Test” provides audiences with the opportunity for a deeper connection to the play’s protagonist because of its intimate structure. The audience members don’t feel like they are watching an actor, but rather feel they are being spoken to realistically. This makes for a memorable theater experience that is rare in its unique form of intimacy.

Nikki Munoz covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].