(House lights fade to half. The stage starts to pulse with bizarre, almost sickening colors. Follow spots chase randomly, while strobes flicker and sirens wail. An oddly insouciant voice exudes over the p.a.)

ANNOUNCER (offstage): Listen. Relax. Concentrate. Begin to become one with the Realization that you have very little control over what is about to happen to you. Think about that for a moment. Face it.

Listen. You're special. You have chosen or been chosen--how ever you choose to look at it-- to be the audience for tonight's round of...

(A spot picks up the Host, Blink Bodie, with two gorgeous, besequined Spokesmodels decorating each arm.)

HOST: An American Book of the Dead!

SPOKESMODEL 1 (holding up a paper paddle with an asterisk printed on it): Asterisk.

HOST: The Game Show!

SPOKESMODEL 2 (holding up her paddle with an obelisk): Obelisk.

SPOKESMODEL 1: Not an actual Book of the Dead.

SPOKESMODEL 2: Not an actual game show.

And so begins the first act of Paul Mullin’s An American Book of the Dead – The Game Show, which received its world premiere in Los Angeles in April 2002 with Circle X Theatre.

Plucked from the audience, three contestants live and die their way through a myriad of American incarnations as they compete for the ultimate prize, perfect enlightenment. The entire history of United States becomes their playing field, from Jamestown to the World Trade Center attack and beyond, as they struggle towards their individual goals. In between lives, the contestants visit the bardo realms, wacky worlds between death and rebirth where Stonewall Jackson and Harriet Tubman are husband and wife; where patriot poet Walt Whitman eternally argues with World War II’s traitor laureate, Ezra Pound. Even when things seem like they couldn’t get weirder, they do, as the contestants start to reincarnate as each other and the understanding begins to dawn that enlightenment is now here and nowhere; a trillion light-years and just a blink away.

Reviews of ABOD-TGS were about as mixed as a bottle of Italian salad dressing that’s been sitting for a month. On one hand, the LA Weekly raved, calling it: ...a dazzling intellectual vaudeville, written with wit and dash, and executed with verve”; and Entertainment Today dubbed it, “... another world-class collision of combustible talent.... no one but Paul Mullin and Circle X could possibly take you on any better ride.”

On the other hand, The Los Angeles Times and Variety both panned the play mercilessly, claiming, respectively, that it “jumbles icons and ideas” and was, “...inexplicable and mind-numbing. Often the wisest course of action when notices are this polar is to just go see the show and make your own choice. Anything that can make reviewers simultaneously that effusive and nasty has to be worth at least an evening and the cut-rate ticket price spent.

The designers, actors and directors met the challenges of the script with amazing aplomb given the paucity of resources that plagues any alternative theatre in this country. The 16 actors in the cast ranged from fresh-out-of-college to road-weary veterans, with a couple bona fide up-and-coming television stars like Kellie Waymire(Enterprise) and Mike McColl (voice of E! Entertainment Television) thrown into the mix. All of them rose to the challenge of playing the panoply of diverse, off-type characters with an esprit de corps unmatched by anything I’ve seen in ages. The design team was equally motivated. Indeed, as of this writing, the sound, lighting and costume designers have all been nominated for LA Weekly Awards.

The set design by Gary Smoot left the heavy lifting of imagination to the audience. For instance, instead of actually building the vast array of American weaponry called for, ranging from a Powhattan tomahawk to a Winchester repeating rifle to a Tomahawk cruise missile, Smoot instead constructed intricate cardboard shipping containers for all of these, and then had them filled with stage smoke just before being taken on stage. The result was that when the contestant characters opened the boxes, ethereal vapors billowed out as the game show spokesmodels then mimed the invisible weaponry. When faced with the challenge of building a huge working "Bardo Wheel" patterned on the intricacies of the Tibetan Mandala, Smoot offered an empty spinning hoop of white Christmas tree lights. In description it may sound like a bit of a cop out, but I can vouch that when implemented it struck the perfect balance of mystery and vaudevillian showmanship. The show's design tour de force was Gary's idea to use three identical white refrigerators as the isolation booths, using those plastic magnet letters to spell out each enclosed contestant's name. When intense gelled Fresnels were focused and on them, the fridge’s white surfaces easily transformed into whatever color the lighting designer chose. Gary triumphed in this instance by simultaneously evoking a refrigerated morgue drawer alongside the American consumer culture’s banality of existence.

As mentioned above, one of the key features of the game show is the bardo wheel, which ideally lists a myriad of “sub-games” and “bardos” which the contestants can select by firing some quintessentially American weapon. (It’s all very The Price is Right.) Here’s a list of the games and bardos that actually get selected during the course of the show:

The Bardo Wheel List:

  • The Bardo of the Salted Wife
  • The Karma Inverter
  • The Bardo of American Heroes of Violence
  • The 7 Train Game
  • The Bardo of American Poets, Patriot and Expatriate
  • The Bardo of Barely Missed Blissed
  • The Bardo of Brag
  • The Luck Amplifier
  • The Bardo of Good Grief
  • The Karma Eraser
  • The Bardo of Purest Joy
  • The Bardo of Louie Prima and Keely Smith with Sam Butera and the Witnesses playing the Sahara Lounge in Las Vegas, 1955

    And here’s a list of all the characters in the play. (Note that a much smaller core of actors can and should be “doubled”, “tripled” and “quadrupled” to play them.):
  • Announcer (Don)
  • Blink Bodie (Host)
  • Spokesmodel 1
  • Spokesmodel 2
  • Barry (contestant)
  • Tonya (contestant)
  • Kim (contestant)
  • Bardo Voice
  • Salted Wife
  • Cheek Eye Chin
  • Tom Hennessey
  • Isabel Witherspoon
  • Surge
  • Reverend Charles Loring Brace
  • The Lightening Farmer’s Wife
  • The Lightening Farmer’s Brother
  • Barry
  • Nathan
  • Jacqui Potts
  • Joao Nascimento
  • John Carver
  • Randolph Witherspoon
  • Guide to the Bardo of the American Heroes of Violence
  • Stonewall Jackson
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Crispus Attucks
  • Emma Goldman
  • Audie Murphy
  • Molly Pitcher
  • Jimmy
  • Jack
  • Florida Wilson
  • Paulie Scarolla
  • Aisha Houry
  • Hi Pullman
  • Maddy Middlebury
  • George Jackson
  • IBM
  • Tom Watson Sr.
  • Microsoft
  • Apple
  • Compaq
  • Dell
  • Clayton, Dubilier & Rice
  • Langston Hughes
  • Walt Whitman
  • Ezra Pound
  • William Carlos Williams
  • Emily Dickenson
  • T. S. Eliot
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Irish Ghosts 1-73
  • Louie Prima
  • Sam Butera & the Witnesses
  • Keely Smith
  • Sammy Davis, Jr.
  • Dean Martin
  • Frank Sinatra
    The following is a list of a sample sections I've noded from the play:

    The Games Begin
    The Salted Wife
    Surge Creates Mass
    Fun with the Fourteenth Amendment
    The Bardo of American Heroes of Violence
    The #7 Train Game
    IBM and Microsoft Sittin' in a Tree
    The Bardo of American Poets, Patriot and Expatriate
    Soul Goals for Suckers
    The Bardo of Louis Prima playing the Casbar, 1955
    Kiss-wave Goodbye

    Update: August 14, 2003

    All this month I'm workshopping the play with actors and director Mike Shapiro in anticipation of a second production at Annex Theatre in Seattle. My new thoughts and feelings about this country after the 2000 election and 9/11, along with some gentle encouragement from Shapiro, have convinced me that I really need to consider some significant revisions, especially of Act II.

    That in mind, I'm nuking many of the sections of the play that I've noded here which are no longer extant in the script, leaving only a few samples instead.

    I'm also indicating with strikethrough the characters that I've cut from the script. Hopefully, in this way I'll be able to give some sense of what revisions were made, and maybe even how and why.

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