STAGE REVIEW : ‘Tibetan Inroads’ Gets Lost in Its Mysticism

Times Theater Writer

Sexual and international politics mix in “Tibetan Inroads,” which had its American premiere over the weekend at the Burbage Theatre in West Los Angeles, but they seldom mingle. It’s like stirring a pot and finding that the ingredients won’t blend.

British playwright Stephen Lowe has attempted to dramatize the rape of Tibet by China in this 1981 play--a particularly timely subject, considering recent rebellious events in that mountainous region--but somewhere along the line he fell in love with his subject. The result is a piece that lingers so lovingly on its themes and characters, and paints so romantic a picture, that it loses much of its drive. Except for the final scene, perhaps even the final speech, “Inroads” is a riddle--a temperate, almost lyrical, exercise on parallel themes of violence and betrayal instead of a forceful indictment of the violence done by one nation to another.

Lowe takes the fortunes of Dorje (Darrell Kunitomi), a poor Tibetan blacksmith, and pits them against the fortunes of the country. Part of the parallel is Dorje’s emasculation upon orders of the Buddhist abbot for having committed an act of adultery. The young Dorje emerges from that ordeal so embittered that he later welcomes the Chinese invaders, aiding them as a way of taking personal revenge on the monks and lamas responsible for his misery.


Dorje’s brother Tashi (Ken Katsumoto) is a monk. He did not resist his own brother’s castration, believing that it was a proper way to rid him of his demons. The strife between brothers and nations becomes another parallel.

Lowe’s play is full of such symbolism, and considering the density of the language, the often mystical speeches and obscure agendas, it lends itself only partially to the medium of the stage. It is more literary and reflective than it is dramatic. Action is lost in words, and while the events themselves are intense--human castration is as disquieting as anything can get--there is a restraint in the script and a fascination with the Eastern mind-set that rob the piece of fire.

The production at the Burbage demonstrates this. It also explains why “Tibetan Inroads” has not had many productions. It is difficult to breathe life into this organism. The highly formal, introverted style hardly allows it. The very mysteries and philosophies that must have drawn Lowe to writing the piece stand in the way of its theatricality.

Director Zara Houshmand has staged an appropriately lean and spare production, but she does not always know how to get her actors through the long speeches and often stilted exchanges in the play. The actors do their best (Iilana B’Tiste, Alvin Ing and Takayo Fischer are particularly effective), but too many of them are stuck portraying characters that are essentially not much more than mouthpieces. The depiction of the Chinese here, to take one example, is as stereotypical and one-dimensional as was that of the Japanese in wartime B movies.

Kunitomi gives the evening’s strongest performance as the unhappy Dorje, a kind of Tibetan Woyczek, but even he is limited by the acutely self-conscious context of the play. Some production values deserve mention: the costumes by Abra Flores, suggestive set elements by Terry Gens, a lion mask designed by Mark O’Bryen and Nancy Fassett’s choreography. The most notable element, a subtle underscoring of events with Eastern sounds by a musician playing drums and other small percussive instruments, is uncredited. The oversight should be corrected.

At 2330 Sawtelle Blvd. Thursdays through Sundays, 6 p.m., until May 21. Tickets: $15; (213) 478-0897.