PERCUSSIONIST IMPROVISOR COMPOSER
Sunday, January 20, 2002
108 WAYS TO NIRVANA
by By Chris Jones
Puppeteer Blair Thomas, the founding brains behind the Redmoon Theatre, is best known for his huge outdoor spectacles, such as the Halloween parade that satisfies thousands annually in Logan Square. But Thomas has always seemed at his happiest and most creatively fulfilled when playing to a small group in a little studio theater, such as the black-box on the ground floor of the Athenaeum Theatre. And watching the chest of one of Thomas' heart-tugging big wooden puppets rise and fall on Friday night as if it were part of a terminally depressed man, it was easy to understand why shows like the current "108 Ways to Nirvana" are where you get the best look at this remarkable artist's creative soul. Thomas, who describes himself as a "theater maker," has always paid a great deal of attention to mood. He likes to control and shape every aspect of a performance”which is perhaps why he could be found handing out peppermint tea to everyone who showed up to see this collaboration with percussionist Michael Zerang. Thomas is obsessed with details, the kinds of nuances that can be best appreciated when the images are only a few feet away. And he has never shown much interest in money or the other trappings of commercial theater. Thomas has all the requisite talent to be working for Disney. But when he writes in his program that he would rather "shed a little light into the dark spaces of our internal and external universe," he is without guile. "108 Ways to Nirvana," which is composed of three pieces lasting about 90 minutes and has its last performance Sunday afternoon, is so called because of the Buddhist counting reference point of "108" (there are 108 meditation beads on a necklace and so on), and since Thomas is a Buddhist, he's also interested in exploring the notion of nirvana as a spiritual goal. Even though this is a puppet-and-percussion show, there's a strong meditative element to this quiet $12 show, which will disappoint anyone looking for flashy theatrics or overt excitement. But the technique and commitment on display is nothing short of staggering. In the opening percussive solo, Zerang pulls innumerable sounds from a cymbal. In the gorgeous second work, Thomas scurries about the stage unscrolling a storyboard telling the tale of two lovers, even as he manipulates a shadow-puppet bird in the rear (the work includes text from Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"). And for the last piece, Zerang and Thomas collaborate on a dark but masterful tale about a Bunraku figure looking for happiness, even as an old Buster Keaton comedy surrounds him. The puppet, a haunted soul who at one point saws off his own arm, even plays percussion. Over the coming years, they say, Zerang and Thomas happily will be doing more of these pieces maybe as many as 105 more. The next is slated for September at the Storefront Theatre.