How to Avoid Being Born Again: The Tibetan Book of the Dead Lives Again on Stage-This Time, in Cleveland and New York. (Critic's Notebook).(Blue Sky Transmission: The Tibetan Book of the Dead)(Theater Review)

By Brown, Tony | American Theatre, December 2002 | Go to article overview

How to Avoid Being Born Again: The Tibetan Book of the Dead Lives Again on Stage-This Time, in Cleveland and New York. (Critic's Notebook).(Blue Sky Transmission: The Tibetan Book of the Dead)(Theater Review)


Brown, Tony, American Theatre


Instead of writing this article by the deadline American Theatre gave me, I enjoyed a sunny September day at the zoo with my wife and 14-month-old daughter. That fact is a measure of the success of the play that is my subject, Blue Sky Transmission: The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which debuted in September at Cleveland Public Theatre and performs at the Annex of New York's La Mama ETC Dec. 5-22. The performance piece is inspired by the Bardo Thodol, a Nyingma Buddhist text that is not only a guide to dying well but also a useful instruction to the living. Such as: Get out and enjoy the zoo once in a while instead of working all the time. I listened. Whether that will help me escape the cycle of life, death and rebirth, which Hindus and Buddhists call samsara, remains to be seen. But Blue Sky Transmission convinced me that it was worth a shot.

The 14th-century Tibetan Book of the Dead doesn't exactly say anything about the zoo. Nor does the sacred text say many of the things that are actually said during the 90 emphatic minutes of Blue Sky Transmission, a collaboration between director and playwright Raymond Bobgan, composer Halim El-Dabh, three other writers, five designers and ten "performer-creators." "Ours is less an adaptation than a meeting with the text," dramaturg Lisa Wolford asserts in her program notes for the play. "We do not claim to present any sort of authoritative version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead."

This "meeting with the text," a virtual nexus of cultures and creative genres, was initiated by Cleveland Public Theatre executive director James Levin, who founded the theatre 19 years ago. As Cleveland's leading alternative theatre as well as the driving force in the ongoing redevelopment of its inner-city neighborhood, CPT has attracted a wide variety of theatre artists from both coasts, including Randy Rollison, cofounder and former director of the Here Arts Center in New York, who is now its artistic director. Levin, who is also an activist lawyer and a La Mama--trained actor and director, had long harbored the idea of a stage work based on the Bardo Thodol. He approached Bobgan, the 35-year-old co-founder and artistic director of the Cleveland-based collaborative troupe Wishbounds (and a onetime student of Jerzy Grotowski), who accepted the assignment.

Levin introduced Bobgan to 82-year-old Halim El-Dabh, a professor emeritus of music at Kent State University who wrote scores for several of Martha Graham's ballets, and a substantial team of additional writers, designers and performers were brought on board. The $200,000 project, the largest in CPT's history, was supported by the National Theatre Artist Residency Program, administered by TCG and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation.

DESPITE HAVING SOME 20 COOKS IN A cramped kitchen and an eclectic palette of skills and styles on display, the resulting work has a surprising dramatic cohesion, particularly considering the spiritual focus and non-Western origins of the source material. In the Cleveland production (presented in a square, 145-seat arena on the floor of the partially renovated Gordon Square Theatre, built in 1912), a circular blob of fabric (hey, if this is Buddhism, it must be a lotus!) hangs overhead, while a bathtub fills with water at the center of the wooden stage. After some introductory incantations about lions' thrones and eagles' thrones from the Book of the Dead, we discover we are in the bathroom of a busy lawyer and mother named Allison, played by Sophia Skiles. Try though she may to relax in her bath, Allison's constantly ringing telephones keep her from enjoying it. Her incompetent co-workers, her stranded daughter, her traveling husband--everyone wants a piece of her. In a nice bit of comedy, she very nearly acc identally kills herself several times (once almost mistaking a can of Drano for a bottle of Pepto). …

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