An odd take on 'Antigone'

San Francisco Chronicle/April 17, 2004
By Robert Hurwitt

For just a few decades less than 2,500 years, Sophocles' "Antigone" has been regarded as a great -- if not the great -- tragedy pitting the conscience of the individual against the laws of the state. Seldom, however, has the individual made a weaker case for her cause than in "Antigone Falun Gong," the new adaptation by Cherylene Lee that opened Thursday at the Aurora Theatre.

What's less clear is whether Lee intended to make the title character quite so unsympathetic. Her new version transfers the age-old conflict to contemporary China and its persecution of the controversial Falun Gong movement. Commissioned by the Aurora, and developed with the help of the Magic Theatre and Z Space Studio, the show is attractively staged in director David Furumoto's world premiere production. But its finest moments are expressed in dance rather than words.

Lee is far from the first to adapt "Antigone" to reflect upon current political concerns. Jean Anouilh's popular World War II version tried (too hard) to avoid riling the Nazi authorities while making Antigone's moral stand heroic ("less Sophocles than sophomore," in George Jean Nathan's memorable phrase). Bertolt Brecht's intense anti-war rewrite was an influential piece in the Vietnam War era (and looks even more prescient today) in Judith Malina's Living Theatre version. Athol Fugard used it to anti-apartheid purpose in "The Island."

On one level, Lee's use of the Falun Gong situation seems apt for Sophocles' tragedy about a lone woman defying an autocratic state to exercise her religious principles. On another level, the idea is obviously problematic. Sophocles' 442 B.C. drama is anchored in the fate of civil war casualties -- and, to a large degree, the clan of Oedipus -- neither of which suggests immediate Chinese analogies.

The story so far: Oedipus having quit the throne (and gouged out his eyes), his two sons (and, er, half-brothers) kill each other in a war over who gets to rule. Their successor, Creon, decrees that one will get a hero's burial but the other is a traitor, to be left out to rot. Their sister (and aunt?) Antigone defies Creon -- in obedience to her ancient faith, Greek customs and family honor. When Creon fails to argue her into submission, he has her sealed up in a tomb to die. But the people grow restive, Creon's son Haemon (Antigone's fiance) kills himself and Creon is left to bewail his fate.

Lee finds her echo of Sophocles' civil war in China's Cultural Revolution, but she stretches her current events analogies in ways that undercut her Antigone -- called A (all the principal characters take only the first initials of Sophocles' equivalents) and played with concentrated focus by Bonnie Akimoto. There's no brother's corpse for A to grieve, honor and attempt to bury. It's never even clear that Creon (or C), the governor, had him killed, as she alleges. Her only evidence is that she claims to have seen this with her "third eye."

A's third-eye visions are beautifully and energetically choreographed by Peter Kwong in an engrossing blend of Peking Opera, martial arts and Falun Gong exercises to a rich, evocative score by Mark Izu. The murder she alleges is a stunning long-distance wushu pas de deux between Furumoto's solid, imposing C and a breathtakingly fluid, athletic Raul Jocson.

Lee uses the dance visions in place of Sophocles' choral passages. Snapping flags, great swaths of undulating red fabric and Fumiko Bielefeldt's striking mix of modern and ancient Chinese opera costumes enhance the visual impact on Ching-Yi Wei's attractive pale yellow set ornamented with antiqued Chinese character stamps and scroll script. Jocson, Frances Cachapero (as A's dance double) and Keiko Shimosato (who doubles as A's fearful sister I, or Ismene) perform with magnetic grace.

The story, though, is more problematic, partly because of Lee's use of Falun Gong as the faith to which A rigidly adheres. Reasonable and informed observers differ whether or to what degree Falun Gong is a religion, a cult, a widely practiced system of spiritual exercises, an elaborate con or all of the above. Lee doesn't exactly take sides, but she seems to want us to sympathize with A's defiance of C's attempts to repress the movement.

Antigone's arrogant streak has always been part of what made her such a complex dramatic hero. But A carries that trait to extremes. C's account of her brother's death makes so much more sense than hers that she appears to have invented her vision for ulterior purposes. Her rejection of her lover H's pleas for life -- played with poignant sincerity by Michael Cheng -- is framed in the most heartless new-age cant ("I'm not responsible for what you feel").

A is an Antigone bent on martyrdom out of spite for C, as a shortcut to nirvana ("Freedom is not of this dimension") and for the odd notion that suffering -- apparently for whatever reason -- will "purify" her family's legendarily bad karma. Lee may have drawn her this way on purpose, as a way to explore the cultlike fervor that led to the self-immolation of five Falun Gong members three years ago in Tiananmen Square. But even the engaging Akimoto can't make this A remotely sympathetic.

Cheng is touching as H. Michael Ching is pleasantly troubled and droll as A's unwilling guard. The final death scene is staged with a vivid theatrical flourish. But Lee's "Antigone" is oddly inert.

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