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Blue Sky Transmission

by Les Gutman
The good news is there is no end. The bad news is there is no end.---Guide

Kishiko Hasegawa and Sophia Skiles
K. Hasegawa and S. Skiles
(Photo: Steve Mastroianni)

The Bardol Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, has been known in the East for seven centuries, but it only entered Western consciousness in the last one. Our understanding of it is of course superficial. After all, Tibetan Buddhists spend a lifetime immersed in the underlying theology, whereas our interest in it (even among the followers of the religion who were born into the Judeo-Christian construct) tends to be both selective and derived from a vastly different set of values.

All of this is more or less a given in Cleveland Public Theatre's Blue Sky Transmission, which seeks to build a bridge between life in the American fast lane and the slower one to which the Lamas would direct their flock. Allison (Sophia Skiles) is a modern American woman performing a familiar juggling act as wife, mother, high-powered lawyer and high-minded public interest advocate. We meet her in a scene in which a bit of respite, in the form of an inviting bath, competes with a pair of dueling telephones (one mobile, naturally). The phones win.

It's not a particularly original concept -- Joanne, the lawyer in Rent, plays out a substantially identical contest as she sings the song "We're OK" -- but it is so nicely rendered here, we don't care. And when she finally makes it into the tub, she dies.

The remainder of what we see is larger than life: that is, it explores the journey one takes after death (according to the source material at least), a path that leads to yet another mundane life or, if one is sufficiently prepared, an eternal one. Performed in the round, it is attractive to look at, with a huge lotus blossom forming an umbrella high over the playing area, and with costumes that are exotic and colorful. Halim El-Dahb's music is beautiful as well. Where the show falters is in its performance style and execution.

Allison's experience is administered by both a Teacher (Lisa Black) and a Guide (Holly Holsinger). It's surprising, therefore, that the storytelling takes on such a scattered feel. This show is a collaborative creation, under the helm of Raymond Bobgan, but involving a group of writers and the performers as well. It contains lots of elegant moments, but in the end seems like just what it is: a work created by committee that never quite comes together as a whole or, for that matter, decides what it is trying to be. There are a profusion of techniques employed here, and style is allowed to reign over substance. Much of it strains to be artful and poetic, with ritualistic elements that don't further its impact, and contemporary resonances (including quite a bit of intended humor) that, when juxtaposed with all of the lyricism, leaves us stranded. It's not difficult to envision the production's aim; it just doesn't get there in a way that moves us.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which teaches us about life by focusing on what follows (and, in its paradigm, precedes) it, can be powerful and affecting. In this incarnation, the best that can be said is that it gives us a relaxing reprieve from the rat race.

Book of the Dead (Second Avenue)

Blue Sky Transmission
Written by Raymond Bobgan with Mike Geither, Patricia Harusame Leebove and Ray MacNeice
Directed by Raymond Bobgan
with Lisa Black, Tracy Broyles, Kishiko Hasegawa, Holly Holsinger, Brett Keyser, Amy Kristina, Karin Randoja, Sophia Skiles, Rebecca Spencer and Chi-wang Yang
Set and Properties Design: Michael Guy James
Lighting Design: Trad A. Burns
Costume Design: Karen Young
Sound Design: Joel Jacobson
Original Music: Halim El-Dabh
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
A production of Cleveland Public Theatre in collaboration with Wishhounds
La MaMa Annex Theatre, 74A East 4th Street (2 AV/Bowery)
Telephone: (212) 475-7710
THURS - SUN @7:30, SUN @2:30; $15
Opening December 8, 2002, closing December 22, 2002
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 12/8/02 performance
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