Clearly, the traumatic terrorist attacks of 15 months ago made artists and audiences more willing to examine this always-relevant issue. But Blue Sky Transmission focuses on what happens after one's passing, taking as its basis the Tibetan Book of the Dead and bringing together artists from a variety of disciplines to portray the post-life spiritual journey as described in a volume that is traditionally read at bedsides as a spiritual guide just before and after death.
Neither show is morbid but, in place of Morrie's earthy witticisms, Blue Sky offers an ethereal sensory experience, at times making the post-death realm seem almost too engaging and entertaining. With music by the internationally renowned Halim El-Dabh, whose composition for the pyramids at Giza plays nightly at that site, the show has been staged with a deliberately Western and contemporary slant. This is both charming and irritating: It adds enjoyable flippancy to weighty material but also puts the spiritual truth of one culture through the great American blender of accessibility and user-friendliness, inevitably diminishing some aspects of the original. This has become a popular recipe for theater lately, catering as it does for our taste for the exotic tempered by the familiar. With this show, we get our FDA recommended dose of multiculturalism; a range of performance styles and cultural references is represented, from Japanese to pan-African to Tibetan to vaudevillian and beyond, all of them crushed together like so many ingredients in a multivitamin.
The most effective "multicultural" performances don't leave that word stuck in one's mind all evening. On the other hand, the show is neatly directed with color and vitality by director and primary playwright Ramond Bobgan at the behest of James Levin, the CPT's founder and executive director. Levin had long wanted to bring this Tibetan spiritual text to the American stage, just as avant-garde playwright Jean-Claude Van Italie did some years ago, also at La MaMa.
The Cleveland Public's version of the TBOTD begins under an enormous, lotus-like canopy that hangs 30 feet above a stand-alone bathtub with a hose attached. While the audience settles in, two performers -- Tracy Broyles and Brett Keyser -- enter and calmly seat themselves cross-legged on the floor of the Annex's in-the-round space. As the crowd quiets, a larger group of performers emerges from the sides, their singing taking over from the El-Dabh's enchanting pre-show music. Then the protagonist enters: Allison, a lawyer in a business suit whose one goal is to take a bath at the end of a stressful day in which she's still juggling cell and home phones while working on good legal causes and trying to get her daughter a ride home from school.
Broyles, dressed in an elaborate black costume with a visor, rises from the floor and scurries about, holding up various props with which Allison (Sophie Skiles) interacts; this creates a haunting sense of a shadow world observing a world with which we're familiar. My Japanese companion thought at first that Broyles was dressed as a Kendo martial artist, then decided she was supposed to be a ninja, then noted that she was also/or possibly fulfilling the role of the Kuroko from Kabuki theater, who are supposed to be invisible to the audience as they hand out props and move sets. Whatever, Broyles handles delicate interactions well; she eventually speaks a few lines late in the play but is as much a presence in silence as are many of those who speak much more.
After the clearly overloaded Allison nearly slips on her bathroom rug, then comes close to drinking Drano rather than mouthwash while doing three tasks at once, the action is abruptly altered. Allison suddenly experiences a brain hemorrhage that brings her life and the show's rhythm to a halt. Both are restarted in a slow-motion state wherein the woman's passage from the realm of the living to the realm of the dying is highlighted by several inventive stage techniques. Allison is soon met by her spirit guide, played by Holly Holsinger, who attempts to escort her through the middle state of death in which a spirit has an opportunity to recognize and follow the light that leads, according to Tibetan Buddhism, out of the dreaded cycle of birth and death.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a series of instructions to the deceased to help them navigate this period. As noted, Bobgan's staging of it is not always reverent. At one point, Allison encounters Keyser as White Vairochana, who humorously sends up the tendency of the newly deceased to cling to the teachings of gurus and phantasmic religious ideas. She also meets other spiritual entities that confuse, flatter, tempt, and frighten souls, as her guide tries to steer her away from these representations of "Reality At Play."
Some of these beings are silly, such as the manic cab-driving Amitabha, and the less intentionally silly Lords of Action. While they have their points to make, we enjoy laughing at them from a comfortable distance. Particularly captivating are Chi-Wang Yang and Rebecca Spencer as The Lord of Reflective Wisdom and his consort, Earth. Their vaudevillian taunting and antics have a wise-fool aspect to them that is unsettling. To my taste, this was the show's most effective tone -- one in which games and chicanery are employed to amuse but also to humble. The goals of the piece are better served when the audience is forced to laugh at things we are not entirely above than when we are allowed to look down and laugh from a comfortable posture of superiority and jadedness.
What happens onstage in Blue Sky Transmission is very compelling at times; I was tantalized by the truly powerful moments and wished that there were more of them. Ironically, the production is so rich in its glut of cultural themes and elements that the essential is sometimes overwhelmed by the theatrical. We don't always feel ourselves rooted in the spiritual journey but are consistently engaged by the show's gorgeous costumes (Karen Young), beautiful singing, and inventive dance and movement. Bobgan and Levin are showcasing a terrific group of artists, including storyteller-dancer Kishiko Hasegawa and gifted designers of the sets (Michael Guy-James) and lighting (Trad A Burns). It shouldn't be surprising that these people found the fusion of so many cultures and ideas to be difficult; still, their successes are interesting enough that Blue Sky Tranmission is a journey worth taking.