This Old Spook House


The vigorous inner space of the imagination and the dark unknowability of the afterlife seem like utter contrasts. One is all sparking invention, the other an awesome shutting-down. But as subjects for a theater piece, they are entirely alike—at least as envisioned by the makers of The Secret of Steep Ravines and Blue Sky Transmission: A Tibetan Book of the Dead. Both associative performances exploit the theater’s unique capacity to engage reality and fantasy at the same time, to make pretty stage pictures by morphing everyday objects or gestures into abstractions, and to let language slide into movement and back again.

Nonetheless, both suffer from the same weaknesses that even large doses of creative theatricality cannot cure: a passive protagonist who stands gaping while action unfolds around her, a superficial and trite take on the ideas at the core of the works, and a pious tone that leaks self-satisfaction as annoyingly as a dripping faucet.

Steep Ravines traces the mental meanderings of a young girl in the 1930s as she explores the attic of her extended family’s house—and the figurative spaces where their old secrets and dreams have been shut beneath tight lids. Though there’s some simple dialogue—frequently mundane phrases repeated again and again—most of the piece is based on movement, played out to a continuous score of period songs such as “Dream Your Troubles Away” and “A Fine Romance.”

A Pierrot-like figure in white pajamas (whose words are expressed by voice-over in the cutesy nasality of a recorded eight-year-old) beckons the girl, Frances (Genna Brocone), through doorways, crawl spaces, and other portals that the rest of the eight-member cast make appear and then vanish as they carry chairs, door panels, and other set pieces on and off with precise and graceful choreography.

They also play Frances’s various relatives and neighbors, whose desires and fears come gushing out of the boxes, chests, suitcases, and closets she dares to pry open. Dozens of green apples tumble across the stage as Frances’s mother (Julia Prud’homme recalls her childhood naughty pleasure of stealing from a nearby orchard. George (Dion Doulis), a would-be inventor who is courting one of Frances’s aunts, fantasizes about the great progress the future holds while he dances out a sort of convoluted hopscotch down a long white roll of formula-covered paper.

Occasionally the entire company crosses the stage, stops in its tracks, then turns or proceeds again. Or the actors sit in staggered rows of chairs, crossing legs or climbing up and down the furniture in unison. All this disconnected motion looks derivative of Anne Bogart’s work.

But unlike Bogart’s best productions, Steep Ravines lacks emotional texture: It feels entirely cold. Worse, it has little to say. Yes, the repressed returns—but never so preciously as here.

The Cleveland Public Theatre’s Blue Sky Transmission has potentially more profound material to work with—the eighth-century Bardo Thodol, the sacred Buddhist text typically called in English The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a guide to the dying as well as to the living. Notes on the production promise that the Western, 21st-century troupe has no intention of leaping o’er its own “social location” to illustrate the work or to present “any sort of authoritative version”—and certainly doesn’t mean to dismiss or exploit the oppression of present-day Tibetans. Rather, the multi-culti company, which created the piece collectively—three writers, nine performers, and the acclaimed composer Halim El-Dabh, all under the guidance of director Raymond Bobgan—aimed to “provoke meaningful dialogue and self-reflection” by relying on the power of fantasy.

They achieve about half of that. Borrowing from world theater traditions like shoppers drunk on Western currency at an “Oriental” bazaar, the production provides many fantastical effects. The hero, Allison (Sophia Skiles), is guided after her death through an otherworldly spook house—the “in-between place”—by various “mild,” “knowledge-holding” and “fierce” deities who want her to let go of earthly connections and choose enlightenment instead of reincarnation. In one sequence, the cast menaces her with a cage of wide red ribbons, each actor flapping a length of fabric on the end of a rod, swirling them into intimidating spirals. In another, a simple metal pan, which had been used as a drum by one performer, covers her face like a dehumanizing mask, then functions as a distorting amplifier when she begins to speak.

Allison’s journey, though, is hard to follow given the preachy incoherence of the cackling, shrieking, chanting, and declaiming deities. Except for the first, and most engaging, scene, when she is alive and battling ringing phones, an out-of-town husband, a demanding law firm, and a desperate desire just to take a bath, Allison is a cipher for most of the play. Her great sin, a deity declares in one of the few unfussy scenes, is that she never even noticed there was a sun “until she went to the Bahamas.”

For 100 often obscure minutes, Blue Sky Transmission merely recommends that one get off the treadmill and smell the flowers. Going to the theater ought to be one way to do that.

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