Tibet Does Not Exist
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 11, 2009
The title of Don Thompson's 1995 play Tibet Does Not Exist, which is being revived by Nicu's Spoon, offers several layers of meaning. It's an assertion about the political status of Tibet—the country (though not the idea or the nation) has been erased by the Chinese government, which has occupied this place for half a century. It's also a zen construct, very suitable for this play about a Buddhist monk visiting the United States to lecture and teach his philosophy—Buton Rinpoche, this monk, would and does posit that he does not exist and that Tibet does not exist (for is any reality not subjective?).
I think that the meaning that Thompson most wants us to take from his play (and his title), though, is a third one. As happens too often with invasions and conquests and genocides involving people different from ourselves, the Chinese occupation of Tibet has not aroused governments elsewhere in the world to offer any kind of significant aid to the overrun Tibetan people. For too many people in power on Earth, Tibet does not seem to exist. How is it that such a state of affairs can persist?
This is not overtly a political play at all, however; like the paradoxical Rinpoche, this is a play that holds many surprises the more we look at it. On the surface it's a very traditional clash-of-cultures comedy. Rinpoche is visiting a prestigious Ivy League university in Connecticut, and the Dean has decided to put him up at the home of a famous theoretical economist named Thomas Walsh. Walsh himself acknowledges that the Dean has done this as a kind of subtle jab at him (or as a practical joke), for the economist and the Buddhist monk would appear to have nothing in common.
But of course it soon becomes apparent that these men are kindred spirits. Rinpoche goes so far as to suggest that Walsh actually IS Rinpoche, meaning that it was Walsh and not himself whom the monks should have brought to the monastery years ago. (Tibetan Buddhist monks believe that they are reincarnated; they search for the new incarnation of one of their colleagues after he dies.)
I will leave it to you to discover whether Walsh may actually be the real Rinpoche. That little mystery is just one of the fun threads running through this clever and compelling play. Others involve two of Walsh's fellow professors, Norman Levi (from the religion department) and Trish Taylor (from the psychology department), as well as—in a startlingly prescient second act scene—two of Trish's students. Thompson touches on a number of fundamental questions about humanity in his play, along with many pertinent contemporary concerns from the Internet to capitalism to the state of academia. And of course, as I've already suggested, there's a vital awareness of Rinpoche's homeland's conspicuous absence from any current political map.
Pamela Butler has staged Tibet for Nicu's Spoon with simplicity and respect. At the performance I attended (early in the run), I wasn't certain that either of the two leading actors—Peter Quinones as Rinpoche and Scott Nogi as Walsh—had yet found his way into his character; perhaps this will come with time. Much more assured performances are offered by Sara Thigpen as the pragmatic Professor Taylor and Susannah McLeod and Tim Romero as her two students.
Tibet Does Not Exist has now been produced three times in New York City. The fact that all of these productions have happened in small indie theaters reflects the idea presaged in the title. This play deserves continued life. Kudos to Nicu's Spoon for bringing it back to the stage.