From the first moment silhouetted images of the universe were cast onto the walls as a father told his daughter the story of the Big Bang, the audience was mesmerized. As The Book of Living and Dying unfolded, shadowplay, aural wizardry and a frenetic energy from the cast kept all eyes and ears riveted for 80 highly charged minutes.
The unlikely coupling of an Italian transvestite (Antonio Ianniello) and his adopted black daughter (Nambi E. Kelley) is revealed to be more than it seems through a series of otherworldly conversations between reincarnated souls and hooded figures in pursuit of a lamp stolen from a monastery lifetimes ago. As the stories intertwine, so do the reincarnated souls merge together. We discover that the man and daughter were, in their past lives, a slave owner who punished his slave girl for stealing a lamp, and a Japanese soldier who imprisoned his lover with his lamp. Somewhere in the mix is a cat that witnessed the theft of the lamp and has since been entangled in the fates of the man and the girl.
The Finger Players have an affinity with the dark and shadows, and it shows tremendously in this production. Reincarnated souls take the form of a tree, a rat and a skeleton, which are presented as towering shadows on the wall while an eerie underscore creeps through the speakers. I was well and truly spooked yet completely intrigued every time the reincarnations / shadows appeared. In this piece, the Finger Players also introduced a new element onstage - chalk. From functional drawings of doors and windows on the wall to scribbling endless spirals on the floor, the ensemble cast played creator, and also destroyer with a simple brush of a wet cloth. The set came alive before my eyes; a shape-shifting creature that brought the audience through time and space.
Actor Antonio Ianniello, resplendent in a woman's silk bathrobe and red heels, exuded a nervous energy that kept me hanging onto his every Italian-accented word. Nambi E. Kelley's composure balanced out Antonio's agitation, though she threw a mean screaming fit at the end where ----------SPOILER ALERT---------- she finds out she was stolen, not adopted. Actor and TFP resident director Oliver Chong played a number of supporting characters from a monk to a doctor, but was most memorable as a hissing, clawing cat.
The Book of Living and Dying is an absolute page-turner that captures all your senses and leaves you breathless, slightly mystified and completely in awe.