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Antigone Falun Gong

Fluid Yet Incomplete a Second Time Around

Cherylene Lee's adaptation of Sophocles's 442 BC tragedy, Antigone, riffs off the imperishable motif of the totalitarian state, replete with tyranny, greed, and changeless sermonizing. Despite its imposing status as a play that's been worked and re-worked constantly (by the likes of Jean Anouilh and Bertolt Brecht, to name a couple), Lee's Antigone is an uncommon take on the Greek classic. It's an intriguing yet choppy work that attempts to bridge the lacunae between past and present and East and West.

Sophocle's play begins with a recap: the incestuous tragic hero Oedipus, king of Thebes, has relinquished the throne (and plucked out his eyes), leaving his two sons behind to compete for the title. Oedipus' sons end up killing each other, and their successor and uncle, Creon, decrees that one of them will receive a hero's burial while the other will be left to rot (for traitorous activity that isn't actually expounded in detail). Oedipus' daughter Antigone defies Creon, in deference to ancient Greek customs around family and burial. When Creon cannot convince the indefatigable Antigone to dispense with her silly proselytizing, he pronounces her to death-which, of course, backfires when the citizens rebel and Creon's son Haemon (Antigone's betrothed) kills himself in a grievous act of desperation. Creon is left to lament his fate, and the dead Antigone's effrontery is at last regarded as righteous.

Lee, a fourth-generation Chinese American, draws her inspiration from both Sophocles' play and the now-outlawed Chinese spiritual movement, Falun Gong. Falun Gong is a mystical sect, but it's not clear whether it's a cult, a bona fide religion or merely a spiritual practice. Many liken its technique to tai chi or yoga. The discipline was made public in May of 1992 by its founder, Li Hongzhi, but was banned by the Chinese government in 1999 to quell the hordes of people who gathered regularly in parks and open spaces to practice the exercises.

A, played by Bonnie Akimoto (all characters are known only by the first initial of their prototype), is an intractable woman who follows the seemingly unobtrusive teachings of Falun Gong, whose three tenets are truthfulness, forbearance, and compassion. In Lee's version, A defies government orders against practicing Falun Gong. Her father and brother have already been killed for their devotion to the practice, and she eventually comes head to head with her uncle, the magistrate, played by a captivating David Furumoto, who also directed the piece.

A is able to divine the truth about her brother's death through her "third eye," which, through deep meditation, allows her to perceive visions that she otherwise would not have access to. Given the mystical nature of A's discovery, which remains uncorroborated by others, the confrontation between A and the magistrate is convoluted and vague, and it's never clear whether her uncle, an imperious man with a growling demeanor, is to blame.

Akimoto indoctrinates A with an almost exasperating steadfastness, and gloriously maintains the sense of spiritual and moral resolve so befitting to both the character Antigone and the practice of Falun Gong. Michael Cheng, as H (or Haemon), is the character who brings the most pathos to the stage, as A's impassioned lover. Cheng's performance grounds the otherwise ethereal play in a moving display of emotion and earnestness.

A's coldness toward H (she icily tells him, "I'm not responsible for what you feel"), compounded by her vexatious holier-than-thou attitude and claims of immaterial power, make her a difficult heroine. Her blatant desire for martyrdom places her in a category separate from that of the traditional protagonist. A's penchant for suffering is meant to evoke the religious zeal of the five Falun Gong practitioners who self-immolated in the middle of Tiananmen Square in 2001. Her uncle's insistence that she fabricated her visions out of a self-serving hunger for attention from the American media is provocative. But while the panopticon of American power is all around, in the form of reconnaisance planes and conversations about CNN and reality television, the notions of a global rebellion and America's media sway don't come across as convincing and detract from the focus of the story.

The inevitable stars of the play are the dancers and the set, which periodically interrupt the central drama with gleaming saber fights and lissome movements. Peter Kwong's eloquently orchestrated melange of Peking Opera, tai chi, wu shu, and kung fu is complemented by Mark Izu's otherworldly score. Ching-Yi Wei's exquisitely simple set is dappled with Chinese calligraphy and wood marks. David Cave's lighting is a sunburst of illumination that imbues the characters with a near-celestial aura and metaphorical strength, while Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes are sumptuous yet unobtrusive.

Despite lovely moments in which the story is transmuted into a resplendent arrangement of lights, flying silks, sword play, and highly stylized dance, the grandeur of this brand of drama is undercut and muddled by the story, which tries too hard to incorporate the Oedipal original into a tale about the persecution of the controversial Falun Gong movement. The premise of using Antigone as a story about the personal devastation wreaked by autocratic mandates seems transparent enough, but Antigone Falun Gong never quite completes the trajectory. Despite its multi-faceted barrage of movement, color, and ideas about spiritual tenacity and the illimitable reaches of political corruption, there's too much story to tell and not enough time to do it.

While Akimoto plays her part with intelligence and aplomb, Lee's A isn't entirely certain or credible in her final decision, which makes the ending seem stilted. And while Lee impressively captures the reflective cadences of A's meditative life, the pacing undermines the plot and leaves a lot of questions to be answered. But the questions, in the end, are exquisitely forgotten in the climax's blazing red overlays of satin, stand-ins for the raging flames that ultimately obliterate the narrative and consume everything.

Antigone Falun Gong runs through May 16.
Directed by David Furumoto
Adapted by Cherylene Lee from the tragedy by Sophocles.

at Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
415.978.ARTS (2787)
Tickets: $34 - $36
Information: (510) 843-4822