A visually splendid 'Tibet'

A man caught in a fierce blizzard in the Himalayas tumbles off the side of a mountain, twirling like an acrobat in snowy midair.

That incident provides one of many breathtaking images in "Tibet Through the Red Box," now having its world premiere at Seattle Children's Theatre in a visually wondrous staging by renowned opera director Francesca Zambello.

Later, enormous backdrops of elegantly-penned Buddhist scrolls materialize. Tibetan characters garbed in eye-popping, rainbow-hued robes appear.

Slide images of majestic snowy mountains, wild rhododendron forests and a gold-roofed town-scape seamlessly emerge. And here come the "yetis" — the legendary "abominable snowmen," depicted here as towering masked, white-garbed creatures on stilts with enormous scarlet paws.

With set designer Carey Wong, costumer Anita Yavich and the inspiration of Tibet's vibrant artistic and spiritual traditions, Zambello has conjured a magical living storybook. And it is nearly inseparable from the shimmering, soulful music performed live by three visiting Tibetan musicians: Tsering Dorjee Bawa, Phuntsok Tsering and Karma Wangdu.

The sights and sounds create a unique theatrical experience for youngsters, one which often (if not always) transcends the strains in David Henry Hwang's ungainly script for "Tibet Through the Red Box," loosely based on an award-winning children's book by Peter Sis.

The book mixed collage-style, poetic letters and memoirs with exquisite illustrations by the Czech-born Sis, depicting his father's Soviet-sponsored journey to film the building of a major Chinese highway in the 1950s.

While young Peter was confined to his bed in Prague with a spinal condition, his father got stranded by a snowstorm in a strange, remote land. He eventually trekked for weeks through the Himalayas to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, learning along the path about the fascinating cultural and religious practices of the country. He also discovered that China intended to use its new road to invade and occupy Tibet, and vowed to warn Tibet's boy-ruler, the Dalai Lama, of that plan.

For dramatic and didactic purposes, Hwang has turned "Tibet Through the Red Box" into a primer on Tibetan cultural sovereignty, Russia's occupation of Eastern Europe and a boy's longing and anger for an absent father.

Peter Crook gives a sympathetic performance (in the air and on terra firma) as a loving but faraway father. But unlike the youth in Sis' book, the play imagines a more Americanized Peter (played by poised 12-year-old actor Tommy R. Fleming) with a showy case of adolescent rebellion. He's a kind of anti-Soviet hooligan, whose bratty exchanges with his stressed mother (Marianne Owen) bog down the show's rhythm with bickering.

Hwang also invents a playful shamanic persona (Randy Reyes) who guides the bed-bound Peter on his own parallel fantasy-journey of Tibet. In that realm, he encounters monks who share essential dictums of Buddhism: the doctrine of opposing forces ("the truth isn't just this, or just that"), the credo of nonviolence and the belief that "we suffer because we want the things we cannot have."

Some of this philosophy is nicely illustrated with bits of action and humor. But the text needs clarifying and focus-tightening: the free-range spiritual grazing and episodic storyline get confusing, and induce bouts of restlessness in younger viewers.

A plea for cultural understanding and preservation of Tibet's traditions is actually made most deftly in the show's visual splendors, and via the grace of the charismatic Tibetan performers. (Local actors Richard Lopez, Amy Kim Waschke and Joseph Yang also perform admirably.)

Just hearing the enchanting music from an array of instruments (gongs, drums, bells, Tibetan trumpet, hammered dulcimer et al.) is a rare treat — giving insight into the people who hail from "the roof of the world."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Theater review

"Tibet Through the Red Box" by David Henry Hwang. Fridays-Sundays through March 14 at Seattle Children's Theatre, Seattle Center. Recommended for ages 8 and up. $12-$26. 206-441-3322.