Miracle Man

By Pier Carthew and Nicola Gunn
La Mama, until May 13

INDIAN gurus loom large in '60s counter-culture, and continue to attract a following worldwide. In Miracle Man, Pier Carthew mines his own experience growing up in a family devoted to Sri Sathya Sai Baba - a guru who claimed to be God's avatar, founded three ashrams in India, and dedicated himself to philanthropic and humanitarian projects.

When he died in 2011, Sai Baba left a staggering material legacy: opulent hospitals and sports grounds, sanitation works and universities. Less edifying details emerged, too - rumours of sexual improprieties, allegations of fraudulent miracles; an obscene amount of cash was found at his residence, and hundreds of cans of hairspray used to tame his wild afro. Miracle Man is luminous, buoyant comedy that, although it satirises everything from corruption in India to the gullibility of the faithful, never ridicules the desire for spiritual meaning. Trailed by a curious outsider (Nicola Gunn), Carthew plays Derek, a devotee who travels from his Melbourne suburb to Sai Baba's ashram in search of enlightenment.

The piece becomes a vehicle for Carthew's versatile clowning and impersonation skills. Characters flit in and out: Indian construction workers, the Hard Rock Cafe founder, a German wanderer who claims Sai Baba saved his life, the guru himself.

Perhaps the show could use a cleaner arc, sharper character switches, and pose its undecidable questions more dramatically. Still, the framing device works wonders. It's playful, enjoyable comedy that deflates, but does not write off, the pleasures, pains (and sheer weirdness) of charismatic religion.