Eastern star

Tibet Through the Red Box

Rated 5.0 Lately, some of the best shows on the boards hereabout are ostensibly for kids but also deal with sophisticated ideas. Tibet Through the Red Box is the latest and best example. It’s based on a prizewinning children’s book by Czech-born writer and illustrator Peter Sís (who has done tons of drawings for the New York Times Book Review). The play was adapted last year by Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang for the Seattle Children’s Theatre.

Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra (CATS)—a Nevada County group that stages a single, elaborate show each January—secured the rights and rented Seattle’s gorgeous costumes. To direct, CATS hired Diane Fetterly, a savvy elder known for her intuitive visual sense. Fetterly creates scenes so beautifully arranged that you could put them in a frame, and she does it again in this show. We won’t blow the surprise, because the show’s most delightful asset is the way it repeatedly takes unexpected turns but always lands on its feet—rather like the talking cat (supple Wanda Shiotsuka) that appears in several scenes.

The story involves a 12-year-old boy in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia circa the 1950s. The boy’s dad, a filmmaker, has been assigned to faraway Tibet, which is being occupied by the Chinese.

But don’t get the idea that this is a didactic show. Tibet, as represented in the play, is not a realistic place. Rather, we see Tibet as imagined by the boy. It’s a place where we meet spirits that appear and disappear, incredibly wise Buddhist monks, abominable snowmen that are 10 feet tall and crack down-to-earth jokes, and mouth-puffing lake fish with eyes that look suspiciously human.

The show also features lots of wire-assisted flying, à la Peter Pan. The boy zooms from his sickbed to the top of a mountain in Tibet. His father survives a huge avalanche.

It’s a most beguiling production, scoring points about military occupation, nonviolent resistance and Buddhist philosophy while remaining playful and spontaneous. It’s never preachy, yet Hwang (as playwright) and Fetterly (as director) work in a surprising number of big ideas, in ways that both kids and adults can relate to.

Tibet Through the Red Box is a top-drawer community production with technical aspects that match, or top, what we see from the region’s professional groups. It features good acting by Michael Baranowski, Harriet Totten, 12-year-old Phillip Vossler-Thompson, Hock G. Tjoa and the large ensemble cast. There’s onstage music, drawing broadly on Asian styles, by Daniel Allen and Bruce Morishita. And, above all, there’s outstanding direction by Fetterly, who makes it magical.