The Tibetan Book of the Dead By Jean-Claude van Itallie '58 Directed by Claude d'Estree Music by David Rothenberg '84 At Currier House through February 25
WESTERN CIVILZATION has always rather arrogantly prided itself on its ability to master the universe, and with few exceptions, has historically regarded the rituals of near eastern civilizations with a good deal of contempt. Americans, in particular, seem skeptical of the mystical nature of Eastern beliefs, in part because they consider them backwards and occult, but more fundamentally, because few truly understand the meaning of such beliefs.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead,a ceremonial performance integrating mime, dance, and recitation of scripture, provides us with an excellent opportunity to understand one of Tibet's most sacred rites--the ceremony preceding the final moments of a dying person's life. The uniqueness of the subject alone makes for both an intellectually and spiritually stimulating evening.
Director Claude d'Estree, a non-resident religion and drama tutor at Currier and a technical director of Agassiz Theatre, clearly put a great deal of effort into making the performance a powerful experience for his audience. From the opening scenes in which the actors recite scriptural invocations to the pre-curtain yoga preparation, the play succeeds in establishing a profoundly sacred tone. And though many of the special effects d'Estree uses initially seem overdone and tritely symbolic, in the end they actually work to enhance the aura of authenticity the actors attempt to create.
Given the rather stringent limitations the script imposes upon the performance, the Currier cast does a commendable job in making the audience conscious of man's mortality. The allegorical vignettes--in which each of the six cast members alternates characters--are well choreographed, and the carefully selected representational objects each actor sports add dimension to the scenes. Moreover, the cast's shrewd just a position of contemporary tunes and original comical skits with actual Tibetan scripture brings welcome levity to an otherwise cerebral show. Particularly worthy of note are the cast's rendition of the tune "This old Man," the mimed portrayals of earthly vices, and the climactic procreation scene.
The music--composed and directed by senior David Rothenberg--is undeniably one of the show's highlights. The six-member group of musicians jumps from reed and percussion to less conventional instruments like conch shells with case, complementing the actors' attempts at creating a sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes soothing scenario. The lighting and special effects heighten the audience's response to the performers. The incense and candles give the ceremony a profoundly mystical quality, as does the variegated "mondola"--an authentic Tibetan floor piece upon which the dance and communicate with one another. Particularly effective is the white shroud, which subtly, yet powerfully, identifies the rotating presence of death each time the actors alternate roles.
The inter changeable nature of the roles paradoxically both aids and hinders the overall performance. Because each actor has the opportunity to taken on the role of the "nobly born" dying victim, the cast creates an appropriately communal feeling. Yet because the roles are so amorphous and indistinguishable, it is difficult for any one actor to shine.
EVEN WITH striking special effects, talent, and imagination, the show can only soar so high. Essentially, this is due to the dramatic limitations of such a ceremonial enactment. Chronic repetition of scriptural dialogue--taken from the actual Tibetan Book of the Dead--and thematic representations that the cast enacts are often difficult to adapt to stage. Although many of the scenes involve creative choreography and skilled physical action, the performance never seems to progress from the point at which it started. Consequently, we often feel as we are watching a scene for a second time.
Moreover, because the lines read so much like verse, the audience often finds itself--through no fault of the cast--awash in a sea of metaphors. "Be like an ocean with no boat," the dying person is prodded at the beginning of the performance Twenty minutes later, the phraseology has varied little. "Even if you were cut into tiny pieces you cannot die again. Emptiness cannot harm emptiness."
Such lines undeniably make for classic literary readings and interesting philosophical analysis, but they are difficult to convey successfully even in the small, communal setting d'Estree constructs. We can only endure so many renditions of "O nobly born, do not be afraid" before the intended effect backfires, and as a result we find ourselves getting restless. Even though the show runs for only one hour. Tibetan Book of the Dead at points seems endless.
Viewed as a creative means of familiarizing Americans with Tibetan custom. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a thought-provoking, often powerful performance which leaves the audience highly intrigued. Yet because it proves so cumber some to imbibe such ritual with the accompanying level of theatricality, the show fails to develop and sustain our interest. How much one can be moved by the performance ultimately depends on the intensity and extent of one's religious and philosophical convictions. If you're looking for an opportunity to supplement your foreign cultures requirement and are up for an intensely thought provoking evening, however, you aren't likely to get any better cultural exposure.