A Sense of Samsara: Adaptations in Reflection

OMG, they’ve done it again. The Dallas Theater Center has just mounted another peppy world premiere musical full of attractive, dancing, singing, and casually attired youths under the guise of classical adaptation. This time it’s an even looser nod to Aristophanes’ Lysistrata than their last Fall’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s set in fictional Athens University, where the male basketball team members don’t care if they lose games, but their cheerleaders do. So, the girls refuse to “give it up” to the team until they agree to try to win, hence the name of the musical: Give It Up.

Give It Up: Liz Mikkel & the Cheerleaders

Unfortunately, Lysistrata is a powerful anti-war play. Led by one principled, strong woman, Lysistrata, the women of Athens refuse to sleep with their men until they end the Peloponnesian War. They don’t refuse to sleep with them unless they win the war.

It’s not a minor distinction.  It’s a bone of contention.

Wonder if I dislike adaptations? I admire them if they work well.  Sometimes they’re the best way to make a classical work acceptable to a tentative or non-adventuresome modern audience.  Alas, there’s not much classical theatre on mainstream television or in the movie houses today.  It’s province remains the stage, where adaptation can reconnect modern audiences to great works they will encounter nowhere else. Through January 30 UT Dallas professor Fred Curchack and his partner, California actress Laura Jorgensen, perform Milarepa, a delightful adaptation at the Bath House Cultural Center based on The Life of Milarepa and The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. The title character, played by Curchack, was an 11th century Buddhist poet/saint, the most beloved figure in Tibetan history for attaining enlightenment in one lifetime. Sound pretty esoteric? The Curchack/ Jorgensen production features modern music (percussion, wind instrument and guitar), rap, humor, special lighting effects and interpretive movement. Their adaptation works well to honor the spirit and word of the original text while making it entertaining and accessible, grounded in current metaphor.

“Originally performed in classical Athens in 411 BC, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a comic account of one woman’s extraordinary mission to end The Peloponnesian War. Lysistrata convinces the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace, a strategy however that inflames the battle between the sexes. The play is notable for its exposé of sexual relations in a male-dominated society and for its use of both double entendre and explicit obscenities.” (Wikipedia)

Aubrey Beardsley Illustration for Lysistrata

Get the picture? It’s fine to bring in song and dance and a live band for DTC’s production of Give It Up. As a matter of fact, the choreography around the basketball court with actual hoops and basketballs cleverly worked into the routines steals the show (directed and choreographed by Dan Knechtges). The music, lyrics and orchestration (Lewis Flinn) offer nothing particularly memorable, while the singing is excellent, notably by Liz Mikel, Patti Murin and Curtis Holbrook.

Where I have a problem is with the book and its thematic intent.  It has virtually nothing to do with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in spite of Douglas Carter Beane’s excellent writing.  (His book for the Broadway musical Xanadu earned him the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical and a Tony Award nomination as well.) About Give It Up, Beane says: “I want theatre goers to have a good time, and I want them to leave with something fresh. Give It Up poses the question, ‘If you take away sexual attraction from a relationship, would you really fall in love with that person? Who would you fall in love with?’ Ultimately, it’s about being who you truly are, learning to love who you truly are and not having to pretend to be something other than that.” Fine sentiments, worthy of writing into a show. But what do they have to do with the anti-war battle of the sexes theme of Lysistrata?  There is nothing approximating an Eros Motel in Lysistrata; the women in protest seize and lock themselves inside the Acropolis, guarding away the money the men would use to continue funding war. The sexual battle ensues once they blockade themselves in, with a warring, but comical, Chorus of Men and Chorus of Women. If one is going to call a play an adaptation of another work, shouldn’t it have distinct correlation to that work? Give It Up has so little to do with Lysistrata, they shouldn’t be mentioned together. It’s more of an adaptation of High School Musical.

Round and round and round it goes,

And where it stops, nobody knows.

We could speculate until tomorra,

But that won’t help us get out of …


Milarepa, on the other hand, manages to do just that. Not only does it provide charming entertainment and educational information, it offers enlightening sustenance for the heart, soul and mind. This play begins with a few moments of silent meditation, which allows audience members to center themselves, step away from the mind clutter of cell phones and daily life chaos, and focus quietly on the performance at hand. A bell dings.  Curchak and Jorgensen, seated stage right on stools with guitar, wind and percussion instruments close at hand, begin to tell the life story of Buddhist teacher, poet and saint Milarepa, (c. 1052—c. 1135 CE). They show the course of his path towards enlightenment through story, short scenes, song and interpretive dance. Curchak portrays Milarepa. Jorgensen, masterfully defining a wide range of personas through voice and movement with wit and clarity (and minimal costume change) plays seventeen different characters, ranging from the story’s narrator to Ferocious Deities, from Marpa, Milarepa’s severe teacher to a Concubine who sounds and saunters a lot like Mae West.

Wheel of Life

Curchack and Jorgensen draw their material from The Songs of Milarepa, canonical Buddhist texts that emphasize the temporary nature of the physical body and the need for non-attachment (No Mind) and from The Life of Milarepa, a romanticized account full of references to magic which lacks the devout non-attachment of the songs. Not written down by the saint, himself, or for many centuries, the songs and tales were dutifully recorded by adherents, contemporaries, successors, and within the oral tradition of the people. So although the subject matter may sound lofty and yawn inducing to an action-hungry public, the accessible way that Curchack and Jorgensen portray the life history using modern vernacular, jokes, stylized movement and irreverent song not only holds audience attention but charms and amuses while offering a clear glimpse into Tibetan Buddhist enlightenment process. There is substance in what these performers create and magical artistry in how they achieve it. It’s a valid adaptation that works on many levels and sparks the creative mind. When the play ends in darkness with Curchack as Milarepa standing at rest center stage, entirely wrapped in softly blinking Christmas lights indicating enlightenment, the audience exclaims with delight and tastes a hint of the reality of that delicate transformation. Much of the performance deals with the concept of samsara, loosely defined (thanks to wordIQ.com) as the continuous cycle of birth, life, death, full of suffering and illusory goals and values. To become liberated from this endless cycle of rebirth when Enlightenment is achieved is the focus of the dharmic religions.  The high point, and funniest part,  of the play’s performance is the Samsara Rap Curchack wrote describing the “six realms of illusion”.


This is a song of Mila-rapper,

Who saw the world as one big crapper,

He ate the world without salt or pepper,

That Buddhist rapper, Milarepa.

Round and around on illusion’s wheel,

There are six realms that seem real,

But they’re just projections, your creation,

For self-protection, not liberation.

The name of the game: samsara, my friend,

And there’s no way to win a game with no end,

When you’re there, you’re nowhere, are ya,

Ready to play the game samsara?

First stop is the Realm called Hell,

Anger’s the state where demons all dwell,

In hell everything everyone does is wrong,

And you and them can’t get along,

You’re in a rage, you can’t act your age,

Cause on this stage, the whole world’s a cage,

Friends you enjoyed, you now avoid,

You’re annoyed, an android in a paranoid void,

Your mind is a demon of terror, horror,

In the hell realm of samsara.

Next is the realm of the Hungry Ghosts,

Who always crave the best and the most,

They’re miserly, covetous, stingy, greedy,

Always thirsty, hungry, so needy,

But they get no elation from accumulation,

No excitation from starvation,

No gratification from masturbation,

No consummation from imagination,

No ejaculation from copulation,

There’s no vacation from their frustration,

No liberation from desperation,

Their main sensation … deprivation.

Their belly’s too big, their mouth’s too small,

And they’re always dying to have it all,

But it’s never alright, it’s always almost,

Cause more is less for a hungry ghost.

In the Animal Realm they’re as ignorant,

As a slug, a chicken, a pig or an ant,

They’re serious, practical, not much fun,

And subtlety?  They ain’t got none,

They’re automatons, deaf, dumb, and blind,

With predictable ways and predictable minds,

If you break their routine, they’ll feel it’s a threat,

And they’ll bark and they’ll bite like a pet at the vet.

Woof.  Woof.  Woof.  Growl.

Their sense of humor is so moronic,

They don’t understand anything ironic,

They don’t get symbols, they don’t get signs,

Literal minds need everything defined,

Show ‘em something unknown, they’ll just disdain it,

And don’t tell ‘em a joke, you’ll have to explain it.

The Human Realm is full of practical fools,

Busy with research, developing tools,

To achieve success, gain position,

While they eye each other with suspicion,

They’re cunning, shifty, slippery too,

There’s nothing humans wouldn’t do,

To get their way, have their say,

Come what may, they’ll win the day,

They’ve got a passion for fashion, a passion for sex,

Passion for flashin’ credit cards and cashin’ checks,

But whatever… a human owns is,

Never enough to keep up with the Joneses.

They lust after love and they fall in and out,

Just to have something to talk about,

And they’ll talk, and talk, and talk till tomorra,

Just to kill time in samsara.

The Jealous Gods are ultra slick,

They make diplomacy their shtick,

Lemme give you a tip, don’t give ‘em lip,

Cause they’ll come back bad with one-upsmanship.

They play hardball in the big league,

And the name of the game they play: intrigue.

Intrigue’s their way to have a relation,

It’s their vocation to rule the nation.

And every relation’s about survival,

Plotting, scheming against a rival,

Their own shadow’s a threat that gets ‘em annoyed,

Ask Freud … paranoid.

And because they need to stand high above,

They can’t stand kindness, can’t stand love,

Can’t stand in another’s shoes,

All they understand is win or lose.

The God Realm is paradise,

Everything there … nice.

The gods feel really, truly free,

Cause they’ve got individuality,

The ego that they have created,

Has got them so intoxicated,

Their self-esteem knows no measure,

The name of the game of the gods: pleasure.

Oh, oh, oh, oh, ohhh … do it again.

Oh, oh, oh, oh, ohhh … do it again.

Now the highest realms where gods are born,

Are the four heavens beyond all form,

(one) Infinite space, (two) infinite thought,

(three) Nothingness, (four) neither thought nor naught.

But even this bliss must come to pass,

Cause formless gods can’t tell their head from their ass,

The joy they feel, they think it’s real,

But in their pride they don’t see the whole deal.

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna,

Hallelujah, Hallelu …

You see, the seeds of habitual thought lie deep,

Rooted in the mind, they sleep, then reaping,

What they sow, the gods’ hearts harden,

As nasty weeds overgrow their garden,

So they jump over the garden wall,

And with divine grace, they fall,

Down from heaven, sad to tell,

They find themselves right back in hell.

Round and round and round it goes,

And where it stops, nobody knows.

We could speculate until tomorra,

But that won’t help us get out of …


Namaste, y’all….

The Dallas Theater Center’s Give It Up runs through February 14, 2010 at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, AT & T Performing Arts Center.

For tickets: 214-880-0202 www.dallastheatercenter.org

Milarepa by Fred Curchak and Laura Jorgensen runs through January 30, 2010 at the Bath House Cultural Center www.bathhousecultural.com

For tickets call: 972-740-2769

“Samsara” by Fred Curchack

From Sexual Mythology part two: PURGATORY (1989) and MILAREPA (2009)

Inspired by:  The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, p. 662 – 668

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Introduction by Chogyam Trungpa

Jeff Grygny


Dallas Theater Center’s Give It Up with Liz Mikkel as Hetairai, and the Cheerleaders

An illustration for Lysistrata by Aubrey Beardsley

Milarepa’s program image: the Wheel of Life, depicting the Six Realms

One thought on “A Sense of Samsara: Adaptations in Reflection

  1. Pingback: The Three Poisons: ignorance, greed and anger | Ichinen Sanzen | Nichiren Buddhism Explored

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