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The Lotus & The Toad

Two Berkeley theater troupes: the Floating Lotus Magic Opera is inspired by Asian religions, while the Golden Toad is driven by spectacle

Goddess Kali

Goddess Kali, Calcutta, West Bengal, India.

Olaf Kruger/Getty

Berkeley—”Back to the roots,” everybody’s saying. Now in Berkeley there are two troupes that have gone past blues, country-western and all that, clear back to thousands of years old Asian ritual drama and spectacle.

The Floating Lotus Magic Opera starts out a performance with solemn group meditation. The actors disperse, and a bearded dancer moves on stage, thrusting about a six-foot-tall torch, and declaims, “This age brings us face to face with the miraculous!” Colored lights play over him and a stage setting that seems stitched out of forty different nightmares.

As the opera proceeds, to a musical background reminiscent of the Satanic Majesties Request freakout, the dancers move through mythic situations of a dozen religious and cultural traditions: A Zen master parries a Wanderer’s questions about life and suffering with cryptic answers that smack of Mr. Natural. The Supreme Buddha of the Tibetan pantheon appears in union with his shakti, or female energy principle (she loses little time in coming on to the Wanderer). The dancers invoke the spirit of the River of Life, and in a stunning bit of theater he emerges, his face painted silver, from behind a sheet of silk waved rhythmically back and forth by two monkey-masked attendants that really seems to turn into a river.

Finally the Wanderer meets Kali, the Goddess of Death, whose face is painted in black curlicues like a demon of the Indian stage. In the end he embraces her in her gown painted with severed heads, and she disappears into a crowd of dancers – to be reborn in a white gown, fearless and bare-breasted, waving stalks of grain.

At the end of the performance the dancers move through the audience, embracing them one by one. Often they invite the audience to meditate with them, and often, particularly when the opera is performed outdoors, they pass around pieces of freshly-baked, unleavened bread. At night the outdoor performances derive a special flavor from being lit by flickering torchlight.

The shaping spirit of the Floating Lotus company is a lion-maned poet named Daniel Moore. For the last two years he has written the texts of the several operas that have been performed, and organized the constantly-shifting troupe of performers. Though he exerts himself to make the opera a collective product, through group meditation at rehearsals, continual rewriting and the interaction of living closely with the actors, it is necessarily deeply stamped with his spirit. It is poetic, rather than dramatic stage: the emotion is exclusively archetypal, with little or no connection with plot or character development. The viewer will be quite confused if he worries how these people got here or why they are acting as they do.

Together with this lack of thread of plot, Dan’s poetry can make the opera hard to follow. His writing is full of extravagant space-walking image trips, like “swift insterstellar swimmer expanding unrolling green serpent of Universes.” The whole thing means a lot more to someone who is widely conversant with Asian religions. But for those who are willing to get lost, there are many fantastic moments. One opera performed last year climaxed in a danced battle between the figures of Good and Evil, each armed with a single cymbal. As they danced they engaged in a mystical dialogue, and between utterances crashed their cymbals together, in an unforgettable image of the relativity of good and evil.

Another important figure besides Dan is Zilla, a striking, Babylonian-faced young lady who combines an extraordinary degree of intensity, earnestness and placidity. She dances Kali in the current opera and has been in the troupe from the beginning. The design and choreography of the opera show a lot of her influence. She, Dan and many others of the Floating Lotus have spent a lot of time together, as neighbors or partners in some form or another of commune. Wherever they live, the place is strewn with paintings, poems, Sufi texts and the works of Gurdjieff.

While the Floating Lotus people have been immersing themselves in East Asian religious theater, their colleagues and friends the Golden Toad have been bringing back the musical spectacle that has been popular from time immemorial all over Asia and Europe. They feature a fire-eater and illusionist named Torchy, who is heir to the grand tradition of lavish international magic shows that reached their peak at the turn of this century but have roots in the most ancient shamanism. He can saw ladies in half, perform levitations and disappearances, and breathe fire, too. The Toad’s indoor shows, where Torchy does more far-out things than at outdoor shows, are given an extraordinary atmosphere by a range of huge embroidered backdrops illustrated with Chinese dragons and scenes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Backing Torchy up is a group of musicians expert in a bewildering number of musical bags. Bob Thomas owns some half dozen different kinds of bagpipes – from an apricot-sweet Portuguese gaeta to a stirring, barbaric Macedonian model to a gigantic polyphonic Italian zampogna. He understands and wails on a fantastic variety of horns, oboes and stringed instruments native to everywhere from China to North Africa.

Ernie Fishbach is an accomplished sarod player and singer in the Indian style. He also does some spine-gripping vocal wailing in duet with the bagpipes, some funky, sniggering bass trumpet work in the North African casbah music that often backs up the fire-eating, and some drumming. The mainstay drummer and remaining hard-core Toad is a boyish goat-faced young satyr named Don Braown, who sometimes likes to read the audience children’s stories that turn out to be mystical Sufi parables.

Deborah Fishbach plays various auxiliary instruments and adds considerably to the visual appeal. There are more peripheral Toad people too, such as fiddler Bill Spires and an occasional folk dancer. The kind of occult book you’d find at a Toad residence would be a work of Aleister Crowley, the “Great Beast” of Victorian England, whose dictum “Do As Thou Wilt, Shall Be All of the Law” provoked a lot of scandal in his time. Crowley wrote extensively on an occult system which he entitled “Magick” and composed early essays on the yogas of sex and hashish.

Both the Floating Lotus and the Golden Toad play Tibetan temple music in the course of their shows, and it was through this majestic, menacing music that they first met. Two years ago germinal members of the Lotus and the Toad, who had been deeply influenced by the UNESCO recordings of Tibetan monks chanting in their deep and powerful tones and playing strident oboes and six-foot-long trumpets, were playing their horns in a park in Berkeley when they ran across each other. And saw that it was inevitable that they join forces. Their combined Tibetan orchestra hasn’t played as such in a long time, but there has been considerable collaboration on each other’s productions.

One week recently found the Lotus and the Toad doing their things. On a Saturday morning the Lotus company was performing a specially-written “Ritual Celebration of Our Breath on the Mandala of This Earth” in a eucalyptus grove on the Berkeley campus. It got into a lot of “Satanic Majesties” freaking, and soon almost half the crowd of some 700 were spontaneously re-creating the early history of dance—round dances, line dances, leaping dances—and showering each other with eucalyptus leaves.

That afternoon the Toad was carrying on the ancient tradition of stopping people in their tracks with mouthfuls of flame and quivering bagpipe melodies, and attempting to separate them from a little of their bread. Begging is forbidden on campus, so the Toad has made extensive study of time-honored minstrels’ techniques of melting into a crowd.

But it was all one show the next Thursday when they played together at the Family Dog. The conch shell blast of Tibetan music was picked up by a conch shell inaugurating group meditation, and, lo, everyone was face to face with the miraculous.

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