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Theater Review

'Book of the Dead' Jumbles Icons and Ideas


Left to us by the ancient Egyptians, the Book of the Dead is a collection of prayers and charms meant to help souls navigate the afterworld.

Playwright Paul Mullin, who wrote the 1999 hit "Louis Slotin Sonata," has taken that idea and combined it with beliefs about reincarnation and events from American history to come up with "An American Book of the Dead, the Game Show." His intent, presumably, is to guide the living through the responsibilities of being American.

Or maybe not. The show is such a jumble of ideas, flimsily held together within a game-show context, that it is difficult to know exactly what he has in mind.

Circle X Theatre Company soldiers on, however, with 16 actors and much the same creative team that worked on "Louis Slotin Sonata," including co-directors Jim Anzide and Jonathan Westerberg.

Theatergoers are treated as a game-show audience as the host (Kevin Fabian) cheerfully pronounces everyone dead, then calls three contestants (William Salyers, Rebecca Avery and Wendy Abas) to the stage to vie for perfect enlightenment. They are sent off to isolation booths--which are kitchen refrigerators in Gary Smoot's cheeky game-show set design--to begin their search for understanding during a series of reincarnations.

From then on, the action fragments into a series of long-winded, barely related skits.

Harriet Tubman becomes wife to Stonewall Jackson, and they produce the children Crispus Atticus, Emma Goldman, Audie Murphy and Molly Pitcher, who become enmeshed in an unholy fusion of American wars.

People are reborn into one another's lives while riding the No. 7 train to Flushing, Queens, N.Y.

Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin listen in wonder to a spontaneous, ecstatic '50s-era jazz performance by Louis Prima and Keely Smith.

Is Mullin trying to say that we must work together to achieve enlightenment? Is he trying to indicate that insight comes mainly through art? Perhaps while sitting here for nearly three hours--which feels like several lifetimes--you'll figure it out. But don't count on it.

"An American Book of the Dead, the Game Show," Circle X Theatre Company at the Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends May 18. $15; Sundays, pay what you can. (323) 461-6069. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

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