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CurtainUp Reviews Tibet Does Not Exist

Theater as a means for calling attention to important issues is far from new, despite the fact that the general public tends to prefer plays that put entertainment before enlightenment. George Bernard Shaw's so-called "unpleasant" plays were castigated by many who criticized his characters as being not so much persons as living arguments. Shaw's admirers, on the other hand, praised him for pressing real people into the service of exposing social ills. The playwright himself disarmed critics by labeling some of his dramas (like Major Barbara ) as "discussions" instead of plays. His label also suits Tibet Does Not Exist and if Shaw were alive and living in the United States, his name would most likely appear on the list of distinguished names who are lending support to this first offering by the new Theater for Human Rights.

While playwright Don Thompson has set his play against the tragic history of Tibet, his dramatized discussion is neither unpleasant or unhopeful. Its dialogue is peppered with humor and its characters are very human. Whether audiences will accept it as a well-mixed blend of drawing room comedy and debate or reject it as a polemic too thinly disguised as a play remains to be seen. It's certainly a worthy attempt to challenge our societal values through the metaphor of actual historic events and deserves to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Thompson who has already enjoyed some success as a social consciousness playwright with his 1981 play, L.A. Book of the Dead, may well have found a formula that may insure a life beyond the current Tribeca Performing Arts Center run. My guess is the best opportunity for such a life will be on the stages of various educational institutions and possibly as a short film.. To move on to the specifics of Thompson's formula, Tibet Does Not Exist centers on a simple and fairly familiar dramatic situation: A host is faced with entertaining an unconventional guest. In this case the host is a Yale economics professor named Thomas Walsh (Dominic Cuskern) and the visitor an exiled Tibetan monk named Rinpoche (Les. J. N. Mau) who's on the lecture circuit. It something of an academic counterpart to the true story of the trying weekend visit by the irascible Alexander Woollcott to playwright Moss Hart's Buck County farm. That visit left Hart exhausted and exasperated, but eventually very much enriched since it seeded the idea for the hit play The Man Who Came To Dinner. Rinpoche's visit also perturbs and enriches his host--but in a more spiritual sense which the playwright clearly hopes will have a ripple effect on the audience.

Beyond the plot device of the unsettling houseguest, The Man Who Came To Dinner and Tibet Does Not Exist are as different as East and West. Where one is bursting with the spirit of zaniness, the other is filled with the Buddhist spirit of debate. Things in Tibet get off to an immediately discursive start and escalate into discussions that range from freedom, economics, technological revolution, language to personal enlightenment. Participating in the debate are two of Walsh's colleagues, Trish Taylor (Tiffany Marshall) and Norman Levi (Wynn Harmon). Trish is a psychologist whose theory "about the forgotten self" is firmly wedded to bolstering her prestige and bank account by way of how-to bestsellerdom. Levi is also would-be how-to author and not so incidentally full of unresolved conflicts about being the son of Holocaust survivors.

To keep the play from seesawing away from being a play and all the way into debate, we have Walsh metamorphosing from cool, gobbledygook economics professor into the member of the trio most suspect to the monk's Buddhist belief in the need to "let go" -- which in Walsh's case starts with letting go of his persistent need for his ex-wife. There are also several other characters who drop in to give us the sense of modern drawing-room confrontational comedy--including a student who takes Rinpoche surfing through Cyberspace.

The most endearing character and the one with the most meaningful and funny lines is, not surprisingly, the monk Rinpoche. Unfortunately, as played by Les J. N. Mau, he lacks the necessary fire and conviction to make us see him as a victor over his and his country's fate -- or to do justice to the play's powerful metaphor of Tibet as a state of mind that speaks to our own life values. This was exacerbated, at least at the last preview before the official opening, by the fact that he still hadn't gotten his lines down sufficiently to deliver them without frequent stumbles. Dominic Cuskern's Professor Walsh on the other hand is quite emotionally convincing. The rest of the ensemble is sincere but without any really outstanding performances.

The productions strongest dramatic asset is Jim Bazewicz's simple but striking set. A circular platform houses the Walsh living room; a few simple props, (a lectern and a trunk), and a rear projection screen (evocatively lit by Bill Kollar) help to expand the setting. Stacks of books lend symbolic meaning to the otherwise almost antiseptic living room. One stack is a veritable tower of knowledge, another more intricate stack is cleverly shaped into an entry way that also suggests a gateway out of the tightly gated mind set the monk challenges the play's characters -- and the audience -- to transcend.

For more information and background about the show and the Theater for Human Rights, do pay a visit to their web site: Theater for Human Rights. It's even got a map with directions to the Tribeca Arts Center which warrants its own mention. It's a beautiful space with a deeply raked orchestra offering great sight lines. The neighborhood is somewhat off the beaten path in terms of theater--but well worth a visit, especially by visitors to the Big Apple who've never seen the hub of our city's government buildings.

by Don Thompson
Directed by Brian Clay Luedloff
With Katie Atcheson, Dominic Cuskern, Wynn Harmon, Johann Helf, Stephanie Kovacs, Tiffany Marshall and Les J.N. Mau
Presented by the Theater for Human Rights
Tribeca Performing Arts Center, 199 Chambers Street (between Greenwich Street and the Westside Highway (Box Office: 212/346-8510 or Ticket Central, 279-4200)
9/20/97-10/26/97 (opening 9/21)
Reviewed 9/22/97--Elyse Sommer

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