.Falun on Its Face

Sophocles goes to China in a labored allegorical retooling. Was this trip necessary?

There are certain classics that are still extremely useful in times of unrest, even after two and a half millennia, and Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone, all about a single voice speaking truth to power, is perhaps the handiest of all.

Oedipus, the late king of Thebes and motherfucker of note, has left his children heirs to a curse, as transgressing ancient Greeks are wont to do. His sons Eteocles and Polyneices have killed each other in a struggle for the throne, and the newly crowned King Creon (Oedipus’ uncle and brother-in-law) has buried Eteocles as a heroic defender and left Polyneices out for the crows as a traitor, with orders that no one is to bury his body upon pain of death. Oedipus’ daughter Antigone doesn’t like this indignity too well and buries her brother, whereupon Creon digs him up and she buries him again, and Creon has to kill her to get her to knock it off and stop undermining his authority. (There’s no need to be overly concerned about spoilers here, because you’ve had 2,446 years to catch up on this one.) Everyone argues with the pair to try to change their minds, but neither will be moved until it’s too late.

You can see how such a story would be a useful tool against all manner of repressive regimes. It has been used thusly again and again with varying degrees of directness, but it would be hard to make its political relevance more explicit than in local playwright Cherylene Lee’s Antigone Falun Gong, unless you were to forgo plot entirely and project bumper-sticker slogans on an overhead screen. Lest the title leave any room for confusion — and Lee tries to leave as little room for confusion as possible — the story has been adapted to the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Falun Gong meditation sect, following a purportedly spontaneous mass demonstration by ten thousand of its practitioners in 1999. Whether Falun Gong is a cult or a spiritual discipline or both remains up for debate, but the horrors that have followed the government’s outlawing of the movement are much more clear: thousands of followers sent to labor camps, some beaten to death when they refused to recant, others setting themselves on fire in protest. Most of the really over-the-top stuff that happens in Lee’s play is merely ripped from the headlines.

Lee’s Antigone owes a great deal structurally to Jean Anouilh’s 1942 adaptation, but Anouilh is comparatively coy, partly because he produced it under Nazi occupation rather than at a comfortable remove, partly because he was French, and mostly because there’s nothing wrong with a little subtlety. Honest. Antigone is simply called “A” here, insofar as she’s called anything at all. The script sidesteps names entirely except for sporadic pop-culture references. These characters are iconic and universal.

Visually, the world premiere production of the play Antigone Falun Gong now nesting at the Aurora Theatre is a knockout, from Ching-Yi Wei’s striking set of golden characters on an otherwise bare stage to Fumiko Bielefeldt’s colorful costumes that range from Maoist simplicity to Chinese opera grandeur. Peter Kwong’s choreography, abetted by Mark Izu’s original music, steals the show again and again in stylized dances of violence, filled with artfully executed kung fu and Chinese opera moves. What these dizzying visions portend isn’t always clear, though one of the dancers, Frances Cachapero, seems to function as A’s double.

To say that anything is less than clear in this play is borderline astounding, because the playwright takes such pains to make everything plain as a neon sign, and it’s partly the elliptical nature of these stylized sequences that makes them such a welcome respite from all the rhetoric and expository dialogue — that, and the cool butterfly kicks.

In this version, A’s brother, a Falun Gong adherent and fellow practitioner, has been killed in a labor camp (reportedly by her other, Red Army brother), and uncle “C” has hushed up the whole affair so that no one even knows anyone’s dead — no one except A, who saw it all with her third eye. Bonnie Akimoto does what she can as A, but between the glassy-eyed spirituality and the dogged dogma it ain’t much. When she’s in spooky mode, her peaceful facade is just creepy. It feels desperate, a false calm, and all the more cultish for that. It’s in the rare moments when she is caught off guard — neither arguing desperately nor gaping at visions nor sitting blankly in a lotus stance — that her character seems to come alive. The first glimpse we get of A as a person rather than an icon is when her lover comes and distracts her from her mission. We catch another glimpse much later, when the guard watching her has fallen asleep and she creeps over to wake him up. We thirst for these human moments, not least because it is here that it actually seems possible to care about A. The rest of the time we know she’s going to die, but because that’s her function it’s hard to care.

Keiko Shimosato and Michael Cheng similarly fulfill their function as her yuppie sister and boyfriend who don’t want to get involved until things have really gotten out of hand. Their suits tell you most of what you need to know about their characters, but they’re perhaps more sympathetic than intended, because if you were them you wouldn’t want any part of A’s crusade either. Michael Ching (a different actor from Cheng) and Randall Nakano are supposed to be funny as a pair of all-purpose informants and guards — you can tell because Ching keeps hitting Nakano on the head — but Ching’s subtler buffoon winds up the most sympathetic character in the piece, because he just works there and didn’t ask to deal with any of this crap, and because ultimately he feels the enormity of A’s sacrifice so that we don’t have to.

When director David Furumoto, in the role of C-is-for-Creon, strides in like Waiting for Godot‘s Pozzo in a long black coat, cane, and fedora, flanked by his lackeys, it’s obvious that this is a Creon without society’s best interest in his heart, or indeed any interests but his own. A smug and sputtering villain, he is without nuance, about as conflicted about the hard choices he has to make as Jabba the Hutt might be. If he has any qualms about arresting A or having her killed, it’s only because the American press would have a field day with the incident. The original Creon’s pride was his downfall, but this C’s pride is pure puffery, a smoke screen for greed and cynicism. Where Creon believed in the authority of the state — his authority — above all, C believes in nothing, and as such it’s difficult to believe his progression from not falling for A’s “martyr me, martyr me, martyr me” bait to deciding that he has been pushed too far and she has to go. Before his son H (is for Haemon, played breezily by Michael Cheng) comes to plead for A, C seems to simply find her a nuisance, but he is so incensed by his son standing up to him that he seemingly decides to get rid of her simply out of spite.

A’s motivation is similarly confusing. Why exactly does she want to be martyred? For the truth to come out about her brother’s death? She doesn’t even know what the exact truth is. To atone for her father’s crime and finally turn the family karma from black to white? Or is she really just a misguided, confused zealot, making a stand with only the foggiest idea what she’s making a stand for? In the end, C’s charge that A just wants to die to get on TV seems the most plausible explanation. He warns her that the Americans won’t care about her martyrdom, crowing, “They have short attention spans, and the light is beginning to fade off this story.” He can say that again.


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