Tibet Through the Red Box is a cultural exploration focusing on the spiritual connection between a bedridden boy in 1950s Prague and his filmmaker father, who is lost in Tibet after an avalanche killed most of his crew. On March 9, Children’s Theater of Madison kicked off a short run of this visually stunning production for young adults and teens, which runs through March 17 in Overture’s Playhouse.
The play is based on the autobiographical Caldecott Honor book by Peter Sis, and adapted by the Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang. This gives the play a lot of artistic cred, right out of the gate. Directed by Roseann Sheridan, CTM’s artistic director, the production feels firmly rooted in the music, clothing, storytelling and traditions of Tibet, presumably as a result of CTM’s collaboration with the Wisconsin Tibetan Association, the Center for East Asian Studies at UW-Madison and the Deer Park Buddhist Center and Monastery.
Borrowing liberally from the beautifully rendered illustrations in Sis’s book, scene designer Christopher R. Dunham covers the floor with snippets of handwritten letters that will connect father and son. He also fills the stage with large, glowing panels that depict the two main characters’ progress through an intricate maze, complicated with twists and turns on their way toward each other and their mutual enlightenment. Peter (Ben Brown) and his father Vladimir (an excellent Ryan Schabach) share their journeys with letters and paintings delivered by The Jingle Bell Boy (Imran Moe), a spiritual form of the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama, shortly after he was enthroned at the age of 10.
A versatile and vibrant ensemble of four adult actors takes turns playing traditional percussion instruments and assuming an array of characters that present obstacles to Peter and Vladimir: doctors,Tibetan monks, fierce yetis, fish with human faces, taunting spirits and menacing Russian soldiers. Their ritualized movement work, designed by Jenny Lamb, is another lovely element that is essential to the piece.
Playwright Hwang took a lot of liberties with the original story to bring the political situations in Czechoslovakia and Tibet to the fore -- in 1950 the former is occupied by Russian troops; the latter is about to be invaded by the Chinese, and both father and son characters feel an obligation to fight against the advancing forces. Hwang also aligned Peter’s struggle to walk again with his father’s overwhelming desire to come home. Then he wrapped the story in the Buddhist tenet that all creatures on Earth are connected, making the bond between family members on two different continents not just possible, but real. Hwang also updates much of the dialogue so this foreign story sounds extremely modern.
Not all of these elements gel. The 90-minute show feels somewhat disjointed and slow, partly because the bulk of the storytelling falls to the youngest members of the cast. This results in a story that is contemplative rather than compelling, and more visually impressive than emotionally rich.