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Rough Practice 

A modern take on Sophocles maps too closely to the original

Wednesday, May 5 2004
Stripped bare of its hype and controversy, Falun Gong is a sort of yoga. So when you see bus ads showing people doing what looks like their morning practice in a park, next to the slogan "What if you could be arrested for doing this?," you can be sure that a Friends of Falun Gong outfit somewhere understands its audience. What San Franciscan wouldn't get behind a brutally oppressed yoga method?

Local playwright Cherylene Lee's new play, Antigone Falun Gong, stars a peaceable Falun Gong practitioner named "A" resisting the Chinese government after it jails (and possibly kills) her brother. She's identified with Antigone, the young Greek rebel against Creon's arbitrary rule in Sophocles' original story. "A" is also disciplined and nonviolent and wears pajamas most of the time. So the same dynamic is at work in the show as in those bus ads: What local audience wouldn't get behind the story of an unarmed woman speaking truth to power?

Antigone Falun Gong is a well-intentioned and fascinating play that would be insufferable if it weren't so exotic. It's about Falun Gong as a political movement and Falun Gong as a discipline (it's related to tai chi). It's also about family loyalties. "A" practices her exercises in a city park to protest her brother's detention. Her Westernized sister, "I" (Keiko Shimosato), begs her to stop for the sake of the family's honor and safety (public Falun Gong has been illegal in China since 1999), but "A" won't listen. She repeats an austere teaching that even family and emotional attachments must be renounced by a true Falun Gong devotee. Her boyfriend, "H" (Michael Cheng), also fails to sway her. A pair of citizen informants report her activities to the authorities, and soon a magistrate, "C," turns up to arrest her.

"C" happens to be "A"'s uncle and "H"'s father. They have a pleasant, poisonous chat. David Furumoto plays the magistrate as a sort of comic gang boss, sitting on a bench with his walking stick and smiling at the quaint but treasonous things his niece has to say. Bonnie Akimoto plays "A" as a cold but determined young woman who accuses "C" of trampling her brother for the sake of his own career, and stoically refuses to renounce her practice.

Furumoto, who also directs, has framed and paced this long scene well, with the urban rhythm of bicycle bells in the background and a gentle suggestion of fading daytime (from Jim Cave's lights). But we never seriously doubt whom to sympathize with. Even when "A" claims to have dodgy supernatural powers from her Falun Gong practice -- like witnessing her brother's fate through a "third eye" -- the audience never responds to the magistrate as anything but a Communist apparatchik who should be resisted. Furumoto makes him likable, but that's not enough.

Sophocles' play is Creon's tragedy as much as Antigone's. Two of Antigone's brothers have died in a civil war, and Creon wants the "rebellious" one's corpse to rot in the sun. Antigone risks her life by insisting on a proper burial. She invokes tradition, the gods, and family piety against Creon's rule of law, while her sister, Ismene, and fiance, Haemon, try to intercede. (All the initials in Antigone Falun Gong match up with Sophocles' names.) Creon locks Antigone in a stone tomb, where she dies just before Haemon persuades the king to spare her life. Haemon is Creon's son; he commits suicide out of grief for Antigone. His mother follows suit (out of grief for Haemon) and leaves Creon bereft.

Antigone Falun Gong reaches for this rounded, tragic anguish, but the nods to "C"'s emotional investment feel superficial. In fact, Lee tries so hard to map her play onto Sophocles' that she weaves a needlessly dense and confusing web of family complications. The ancient Antigone features a uniquely absurd family tree -- Antigone and her brothers are children of Oedipus, who slept with his mom, meaning they're aunts and uncles to each other as well as brothers and sisters -- which Lee can't imitate without draining some of her play's inherent power.

The strongest scenes in Antigone Falun Gong fall between the dialogue, when the actors and dancers tell background stories reminiscent of Sophocles' chorus, with speechless movement derived from martial arts and Falun Gong itself. Combat scenes, acts of self-torture, even a reference to the Tiananmen Square showdown between a student and a tank play out against keening flute and thundering drums, with Fumiko Bielefeldt's traditional costumes streaming ribbons of silk. Peter Kwong's choreography is a thing of beauty.

Antigone Falun Gong, then, is a decorative introduction to Chinese dissent. Falun Gong makes up the largest nonviolent resistance group on Earth right now, perhaps the most important one since Gandhi drove out the British, and Beijing persecutes its followers because they pose an honest threat. This history is more than enough to make the show interesting. But if someone wrote the same play about American politics now, I'd feel cheated; I'd want more than a comfortable ad from the side of a bus.


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