One of the first tasks of children's theatre is to convince the young that the stage contains the possibility of magic. Once in a while, it's nice to remind adults of that, as well. This exquisitely built and splendidly realized production of "Tibet Through the Red Box", based on a novel by Peter Sis, is a transcendent example of true theatre magic. It combines a deeply felt and expertly told story of a father and son finding each other across huge distances with an exploration of cultures and beliefs expressed through all manner of theatrical spectacle, from a Himalayan avalanche to the ineffable mystery of a single bell-tone.
The script, by David Henry Hwang ("M Butterfly", "Flower Drum Song", "The Dance and the Railroad") is as sophisticated and layered as anything he's written, accessible to the very young, but with profound levels of meaning, and masterful use of a wide range of dramatic techniques. Director Francesca Zambello perfectly blends the most conventional narrative with the purely fantastic, allowing us to find in the ordinary the most extraordinary possibilities, and making both the wide world and our measureless existence into a single plain of experience.
It's a peculiar story. In the 1950's, a man travels from Czechoslovakia to Tibet in order to make a film about that virtually unknown world. He is caught in an avalanche, and survives, only to spend years making his way through this mysterious land, to Lhasa, and the home of the Dalai Lama.
Meanwhile, his 12 year old son, Peter (Tommy Fleming), is taunting the occupying Russian troops when he falls from a rooftop and injures his spine. He is confined to a bed, unable to walk, for an undeterminable period of time. Paralyzed and desperately missing his father, the only connection they have is through occasional letters the son receives, and drawings the boy does of what he imagines Tibet to be like. His mother (Marianne Owen) gives him an ornate red box in which to keep the drawings and letters, and somehow these two kinds of message, the visual and verbal, merge to create both a psychic, and ultimately physical, reunion for the man and the boy. In the process, both experience the adventures of strange and alien places, of legends and creatures, of overcoming great hardships, and of coming to understand the deepest mystery of all, that between people and the reasons why they do what they do.
As the father, Peter Crook is entirely believable as the sort of man who would follow his own passion and curiosity, regardless of the cost to others, but not as a result of selfishness so much as self-interest. It is the Buddhist notion of desire and its consequent unhappiness. One of the joys of the script is that all of the characters are imperfect, often acting out of less than admirable motives, desiring to live well, but often failing their own intentions. Peter resents his father's absence, is angry at his mother for her inability to satisfy his sometimes petulant needs, hangs out with the "wrong" friends and is injured because he is unequal to battling a foreign, occupying force that has changed his life. His pet cat, played with elegant impersonation by Randy Reyes, wearing Tibetan clothing and a wig, but achieving the character entirely through movement and gesture, has a feline serenity, and a regal impatience with lesser beings. That he later shares embodiment with a mysterious "Jingle-bell boy", and with the Dalai Lama himself, seems equally astonishing and unsurprising. The theme that all life is connected carries through in every detail of the production.
And what production! From the initial Tibetan chant, performed, like all of the music, by an authentic quartet of exiled Tibetans (now living in Dharmasala, India, and brought to Seattle for this production), to the fabulous moving projections of landscape, snowstorm, dreamworld and harsh reality, the variety of media is always in the service of the story. Incredible costumes, from tall, white Yeti on stilts, engaged by Peter's imagination to overwhelm Russian troops, to the villagers that Father stays with, to the sacred halls of the palace at Lhasa, every detail of this wealth of imagery is perfectly realized. I don't know that I've seen a better effect than the opening action of Father tumbling through the dark sky, and the blinding snow of the avalanche. What truly distinguishes this production, however, is that no matter how spectacular the effects and technical production becomes, it never overwhelms the central concerns of one boy, one man, and their extraordinary inner journeys. This is one of those shows where you can't wait to go tell others all about it, knowing that they will never really understand until they see it for themselves.
There is a lot of good theatre in Seattle. But, as in any major city, you see two dozen ok shows, two dozen pretty awful shows, a handful of truly excellent work, and once in a while, a show that reminds you of all that theatre can do, of why this particular art continues through the centuries, and appeals to an entirely new audience generation after generation. To say this is as good as children's theatre gets actually understates the achievement here. This is the kind of show that starts children on a lifetime of theatre-going, and that's important. But it's also the kind of play that can restore the enthusiasm of the world-weary, and remind us that very big ideas not only apply to our everyday lives, but also connect us to the very act of living. I know that sounds pretentious, and nothing about this amusing, exciting, inventive show is ever pretentious, but I'm trying to convey a richness in this unique and unlikely material that is rare and precious, and like those materials placed in that ornate red box, can somehow become genuinely, inexplicably, undeniably magical.
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