Sunday, April 12, 2009

On-Stage: Tibet Does Not Exist

Fifty years have passed since the Dalai Lama took refuge in India, forming the Tibetan government in exile. Sadly, there seems little reason to believe China’s cruel occupation will end anytime soon, particularly in light of the recent comments of the new Secretary of State, signaling the removal of Chinese human rights abuses from the administration’s agenda. As a result, it is most welcome to have a play which reminds us of the continuing plight of Tibet return to the New York stage. That play is Don Thompson’s Tibet Does Not Exist, which opened last night at the Spoon Theater.

If you cannot go home again, you might as well hit the lecture circuit. Such is the case for Buton Rinpoche, an exiled Tibetan Lama coming to Yale for a special address. He will be staying with Yale’s leading materialist: one very annoyed Professor Walsh, the superstar of the economics department. Walsh is initially uncomfortable around Rinpoche, having only reluctantly agreed to accommodate him when directly asked to do so by a trouble-making dean. However, the Lama can turn on the charm in private, ultimately making a surprising connection with his host.

Exist is often quite clever satirizing the insular world of the university, dominated by campus politics and academic buzz words. At a dinner party Walsh holds in Rinpoche’s honor his colleagues all look to the Lama to validate their pet theories. However, they are all duly scandalized when the guest of honor has complimentary things to say of Richard Nixon.

Although Rinpoche has come to Yale to promote the Tibetan cause, the audience only hears about the horrors of the Communist occupation—6,000 monasteries destroyed, Buddhist nuns raped and murdered, the orchestrated de-Tibetanization campaign—second hand from Walsh’s psych professor colleague. To paraphrase a Rinpoche koan, Exist is about Tibet, but not about Tibet. It is about freedom—in the metaphysical sense. To be spiritually free, Rinpoche argues he must rise above the geopolitical and reach a point where Tibet does not in fact exist.

Rinpoche has some very interesting things to say, which prove to be generally pro-American and in his unique fashion, quite pro-capitalist. As a character though, Rinpoche is a bit under-written, often functioning as a symbol or comic relief. Yet, he is the catalyst for some sharply written drama, including a particularly effective late scene that vividly exposes the inner core of several characters. On the other hand, the seemingly uptight Walsh is a deeply realized and surprisingly sympathetic character, functioning as the play’s central human core.

Scott David Nogi is pitch-perfect as Walsh, conveying both the economist’s surface arrogance and lingering pain it conceals. To be fair, Peter Quinones has an impressive stage presence as Rinpoche, but the part of the playful Lama is just a bit too cute. Still, it is redeemed by the balance of Thompson’s writing, which in all other respects, remains quite fresh—even bold, at times.

Consisting fascinating, Exist brilliantly portrays the pettiness and political correctness of academia, while leaving audiences with much to ponder on a philosophical level. It is also a timely, but not at all didactic reminder that Tibet does indeed still exist, though many in power would probably prefer we forgot it. A smart play, tightly produced by Nicu’s Spoon, Exist runs through April 26th.

(Photo credit: Stephanie Barton Farcas)