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‘Killing Buddha’ sees ancient folk story through a modern lens

SANTA FE, N.M. — Two storytellers who “haven’t seen each other in 700 years” reunite to tell a modern audience the ancient tale of a serial killer who is redeemed after trying to kill the Buddha.

“Killing Buddha,” presented this weekend at Teatro Paraguas, is an award-winning production by Theater Dojo, a traveling company based in Las Cruces that focuses on retelling old-time folklore and literature in a modern context.

Randy Granger and Algernon D’Ammassa of Southern New Mexico’s Theater Dojo will bring their latest play, “Killing Buddha,” to Santa Fe this weekend at Teatro Paraguas. (Courtesy of Randy Granger)

The cast includes artistic director Algernon D’Ammassa and composer/performer Randy Granger, who play the storytellers and act out the different characters. The show has received accolades at the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival and the San Diego International Fringe Festival, and has been staged in other cities across New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

The story follows Angulimala, a North Indian folk figure known for murder and robbery. At one point, the Buddha confronts him. Angulimala attempts to run at the Buddha, but can’t reach him. When the killer gets frustrated and asks why the Buddha why he won’t stand still, the Buddha says he is still – because he’s peaceful and kind, unlike Angulimala who can never be mentally at ease because of rage. It’s the moment of the killer’s “pivotal awakening” that leads to his enlightenment, Granger said.

D’Ammassa and Granger say the production plays off themes of anger and eventual redemption. They let the audience find parallels with everyday life within the story.

“Every time we perform, it is a little bit different,” said D’Ammassa, who is a Buddhist himself. And audience members bring to the theater their own thoughts of current events that change constantly.

The players are expecting a new set of reactions this weekend. It will be the first time they will be telling their tale after the recent protests and a killing in Charlottesville, Va.

Audience interaction is allowed throughout the performance and a group discussion is key during the scene of Angulimala’s trial. D’Ammassa first acts out characters like a prosecutor and witnesses speaking at the trial after Angulimala turns himself in to clear his conscience, then he asks the audience whether the murderer should be forgiven or punished for what he’s done.

In the past, he says, audience members who’ve spoken up include real-life judges pleading for or against the killer. Others reflect on how they view what is right or wrong through the lenses of wars they’ve experienced, like Vietnam or more recent events.

“People will get up and speak from the heart about what their impulse is: What’s justice?” said D’Ammassa.

Based on what D’Ammassa is acting out and the audience is saying, Granger is creating the show’s “live soundtrack.” When he’s not speaking himself, the musician improvises on flutes from various cultures, including Indian, Native American and Irish, as well as percussion and string instruments. He also has less conventional instruments, like tequila bottles and cigar boxes. “It’s a very organic process,” said Granger.

Because of the universal themes of anger, peace and justice, the two said this ancient story is still relatable to all people of all backgrounds, religions and walks of life today.

“We just feel like we’re in a position to lay those stories out without saying these are bad or good, this is a reflection of the ways people were back then and even still are,” said Granger.

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