Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Tibetan Book of The Dead (or how not to do it again)"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark

"The Tibetan Book of The Dead
(or How Not To Do It Again)"

by Jean-Claude van Itallie
from translations of traditional Tibetan texts
under the direction of Kim Mancuso
Musical Direction by Katherine Down

Lighting Design by Sabrina Hamilton
Scenic Design and Costumes by Nick Ularu
Special Consultant Max Palar
Assistant to The Director Amie Keddy
Production Stage Manager Patricia Flynn

Christopher Crowley
Court Dorsey
Kermit Dunkelberg
Monica Gomi
Susan Thompson
Max Palar

Katherine Down
Eve Lindi
Leo Logino-Katz
Matt Samolis

The Pilgrim Theatre Research and Performance Collaborative spent a year bringing Jean-Claude Van Itallie's epic work into shape, exploring, inventing, testing, refining. This final form makes use of all aspects of performance, from mime and dance to spectacle and space. Showmanship and ritual, like two hands enclosing empty space, combine to bring new life to old truth.

In the enormous rotunda of the BCA's Cyclorama Building huge high sheets of black plastic hang, creating a maze-like entrance to an inner performance space. A motley jazz-band dances out of one corner, beckoning, inviting waiting spectators to follow into the unknown and to take seats before a tall square playing space. Facing the seats, seen through a curtain of long ropes silvered by the lights, a figure in a pure white dress crouches mid-way upon a ladder with a long white sash stretching down past her and out into the space. Narrators identify her as a soul about to die, and address her --- and the audience as well --- as "Friend... " This soul's journey is portrayed in turn by each of the five actors at different times, while to the left plump Max Palar, Buddha-like in a lotus-position, occasionally declaims portions of the sacred text, bowing his forehead ritually upon the open book as punctuations.

The ninety-odd minutes of presentation are made to seem timeless by slow rhythms, repetitions, thematic variations, and an arsenal of sound- and music-producing instruments too numerous to count. Dances, gestures, lighted spaces and fades to total darkness, declamations and dialogues merge and emerge and comment upon each other. Nothing is rushed, no detail is wasted.

The journey described in The Book is a calming gradual renunciation of the urge to cling to aspects of the past. Spirits of the four directions describe first the good, then the selfish aspects of their domains of earth, air, water and fire. Each presents the soul with a choice, reminding it periodically that "Do not be afraid. You are dead. You cannot die again" and "Emptiness cannot harm emptiness". If the soul chooses desire over compassion, or pride over humility, the spirit of that aspect seems a frightening rather than a soothing image, and the soul's impulse is to hide itself --- to hide itself in a womb and thus to be reborn into the pains and sufferings of life once again.

Over and over, the voices remind the soul --- and the audience --- that "everything here arises only from your own mind". All the selfish, clinging desires can be shed, can be ignored. Remaining aloof from rebirth is a possibility, if the complex emotions of the past life can be seen as illusory. It is, always, up to you to choose.

At one point the four spirits, each marked by a different color, perform a joyous Rainbow Dance, weaving and waving big billowing scarves of the four different colors, tossing them together into the air, and each snatching a different one to wave and intertwine. Thus the Rainbow Dance of life is seen to be a continually shifting interplay of the four aspects of being all merging and emerging and submerging endlessly and eternally, just as the single soul on this journey is portrayed by different actors at different times.

In the end, of course, each one in the audience will see something unique in the performance. It is, always, up to you to choose. Everything here arises only from your own mind


"The Tibetan Book of The Dead (or How Not to Do It Again)" (till 29 August)
The Cyclorama, Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide