Dead heads 

Book of the Dead ponders the afterlife

I don't know much about Buddhism, but I do know that I don't want to die. That's what I bring to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Jack in the Black Box Theatre's production of the classic Buddhist text.

Playwright Jean-Claude van Itallie, pioneer of Off-Broadway avant-garde, specializes in dismantling theater structures and focusing on archetypes. For The Tibetan Book of the Dead, he offers a dramatized treatment of the words Tibetan Buddhists read to dying loved ones. Just as a soul must relinquish earthly concerns to achieve transcendence, so must theater audiences give up conventional expectations to get anything out of the show.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead presents a kind of "journey," but no real plot or characters. If you're not already versed in meditation and Eastern philosophy, it's like watching a ritual at someone else's place of worship. Jack in the Black Box offers an occasionally intriguing collage of music, movement, costumes and thematic refrains, but the production can be as hard to sit through as church on a sunny Sunday morning.

Even before the action begins we watch the seven-actor ensemble warm up on stage, costumed a little like monks and a little like Old Testament movie extras. They pour sand over the stage and swirl it with their fingers, evoking Buddhist sand art. One of the actors (Rebecca Dutton) takes center stage as a dying person, and the rest of the ensemble (Jake Dreiling, Josh Ford, Tony Foresta, Filipe Guedes, Melanie Martin and Brenda Norbeck) describes the physical and spiritual phases of death.

Directed by Marty Aiken, The Tibetan Book of the Dead suggests that dying is easy -- the physical part, at least. The hard part is to release worldly attachments and negative emotions. Representing lust, for instance, the ensemble clutches each other in an orgiastic scrum. And inner demons -- including an especially creepy three-eyed, dreadlocked creature -- may bedevil the newly departed souls.

The prize is enlightenment and universal one-ness, but distracted souls, in effect, go back to start, reborn again with hopes of getting it right. Van Itallie's subtitle, "How Not To Do It Again," explains the show's conceit, in which different actors represent souls grappling with the Last Temptation. (Or maybe they're the same soul, repeatedly reincarnated.)

It's not always a reassuring show. One soul, unable to give up the flesh, calls for his body, and the jeering ensemble responds by dumping an armload of broken mannequin parts on the floor.

Another posthumous person (Filipe Guedes) tries to join in the festivities at a wedding party and ultimately tries to be reborn as the child of the newly married couple rather than, in effect, "go into the light." Guedes' childlike, confused smile provides one of the evening's most affecting moments.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead offers a bit of humor that's all the more welcome because there's so little comedy and so much abstract action. Ghostly Josh Ford sits flanked by two spirits, one who hands him white stones representing his life's good deeds, the other giving him black stones representing his bad deeds. At one hilarious moment, Ford realizes that he's getting lots of black stones and no more white ones, boding ill for his fate.

By far the production's best quality is its Indian-influenced music, composed by Steve Gorn and performed live by Nathan Green and Jamie DeDakis on enough exotic instruments to stock a music store. Martial drums raise our adrenaline, grand gongs rattle our teeth and a couple of times an incongruous jazz saxophone hits bluesy notes that feel refreshingly down to earth.

Occasionally the ethereal sounds play in such high registers, they drown out the actual actors, who generally have flat voices rather than strong, musical ones. Each actor gets a moment in the spotlight as a soul undergoing a trial, and some of them nicely convey small epiphanies, such as Melanie Martin reviewing her life and releasing her petty thoughts. Just as often, though, the players fall back on high-decibel overacting. Dutton has a striking presence with her tawny hair and flashing teeth, but her demeanor would suit a stern schoolteacher more than a spiritual guide.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead doesn't just offer a manual for how to die, but provides a kind of Zen master approach to how to live by resisting your worst impulses and find inner peace. But with incessant lines like, "The Southern shadow of the brain is pride!" it becomes hard to find much difference between the play's various sections, making The Tibetan Book of the Dead feel overlong and repetitive. Your patience comes to an end well before the play does.

I love the idea that the show represents the actual afterlife, just for the fun of imagining the reaction of, say, creationist Bible-belters shuffling off this mortal coil, only to be confronted by hippie-style spirits intoning, "Be like an ocean with no boat!" A daring but difficult piece of theater, The Tibetan Book of the Dead views death and spirituality from a unique perspective. For the majority of theater-goers, though, life is too short to see it.


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