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Theatre in Review: Bliss (Black Moon Theatre Company/The Flea Theater)

Alessio Bordoni. Photo: Steven Pisano

This one separates the men from the boys, or maybe the Buddhists from everyone else. Bliss is so devoted to its own particular notion of the sublime, is so in love with its distinctly mandarin style, that entertainment is never a possibility; indeed, it seems not to have even been considered. The audience sits facing a large, stage-spanning scrim, onto which are projected images of people, sunbursts, birds in flight, and mandalas, among others. The scrim is simultaneously backlit to show a man and woman, each wearing flesh-colored tights and naked from the waist up. As the piece begins, they are lying on the floor.

Gradually, the woman stands up and moves around the stage, striking a series of hieratic poses. The man, very slowly, moves into an erect position, seemingly in physical pain. In a voice streaked with agony, he recites a text adapted from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This continues for 60 minutes.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a key Buddhist text that, according to Wikipedia, "describes, and is intended to guide one through, the experiences that the consciousness has after death, in the bardo, the interval between death and the next rebirth. The text also includes chapters on the signs of death and rituals to undertake when death is closing in or has taken place." This pretty much explains what happens, as the man seemingly undergoes a terror-filled death, enters a kind of neutral state, and is eventually reborn again.

Bliss is not the first piece to tackle this ancient, sacred text. Jean-Claude van Itallie created a piece based on it that was staged at La MaMa in 1983. Mel Gussow, writing in the Times, noted, "While acknowledging Mr. van Itallie's ecumenical spiritual fervor, one must also suggest that The Book of the Dead does not have the innovative vitality or the immediate relevance for Western audiences of [The Serpent]," a reference to an earlier work of his, based on the Old Testament. I'm afraid that Gussow's words seem as relevant as ever today. It's possible that devoted Buddhists might find Bliss to be compelling, but even they may be put off by the piece's peculiarities. The movement, suggestive of Butoh -- Eric Pettigrew serves as Butoh dance consultant -- isn't especially compelling, and the dancer, Charlotte Colmant, never really interacts with Alessio Bordoni, her costar. Bordoni also adapted the text, and his speaking voice lacks the deep resonance -- in fact, it is rather unpleasantly nasal -- that might make an hour-long recital more tolerable.

Sad to say, the entire enterprise feels undone by its unwillingness to toss even the tiniest bone to the audience. The projections -- there is only an artwork credit, by Estella Dupree -- are often quite beautiful, thanks especially to their rich color palette, and the lighting, by Cindy Shumsey, is equally accomplished. But staring at a scrim for a full hour can wear one down, especially if so little is happening behind it. The program offers a hint of the show's deadly seriousness in Dupree's bio: "Estella creates landscapes both sensual and mythic, temples where viewers can enter something greater, and much less unique, a dreamscape that atomizes the personal and everyday, and through a more universal, penetrative connection, reduces us to nothingness."

I'm afraid that I left Bliss feeling nothingness, but perhaps not in the way its creators intended. -- David Barbour

(19 September 2016)

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