Go East, Young Man
The Winged Seed
Pangea World Theater
AS CHINA'S NEW President Jiang Zemin tours the land defending his country's human-rights record, Pangea World Theater is busy mining the ironies of Zemin's visit. Its latest production, The Winged Seed, a memoir by Chinese-American poet Li-Young Lee, adapted for the stage by David Mura and currently playing at the Guthrie Lab, tells the true story of a Chinese literature professor and his family. Exiled from China and then in Indonesia and Hong Kong for teaching Christianity, the United States eventually becomes the family's refuge. In Pennsylvania, the father finds work as a Presbyterian minister and the eldest son--after learning how to deal with the vicious teasing of American bullies--receives one of the highest honors available to American intellectuals: an interview with Bill Moyers.
The Moyers interview isn't actually in the play; it's in the program. But the footnote exists to let thinking people who have never heard of Li-Young Lee know that his story carries some import. And it does. One is sorry to see, though, that more of the story hasn't come through in Pangea's production. Despite scenes of tragedy and tumult, the Lee family's epic journey is regrettably dull, and, like many true stories, strangely incomplete. Given the source material and the limitations of live theater, however, this dramatic flattening was perhaps inevitable.
In book form, Lee's memoir has no linear narrative. This "story" of exile and endurance in the face of relentless persecution is told through stream-of-consciousness associations connected by beautiful language and evocative images. Mura's adaptation gives Lee's tale a plot, but in so doing traps it in an uncomfortable narrative space, between the logic of poetry and the demands of a good story. Mura explains his reasoning in the program notes: "I wanted the play to contain a narrative structure not present in the more fluid writing of the memoir. This would allow the audience a more easy entrance into the journey of Lee's family and their immense displacements."
Which may be true, but so much is lost in the process that the whole ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its parts. There are tears and anguish, but little passion. The tale is epic, but the storytelling rarely rises to the subject matter. To speed things along, great chunks of the family's history are dispensed with by the narrator in a sentence or two, while other episodes--such as the family's ordeal while waiting for their father to get out of a Jakarta prison--are dwelled upon exhaustively.
The play's central relationship between the narrator, Li-Young (played by Luu Pham), and his father (Mura) is also tough to get involved in, largely because there isn't much of a relationship at all. Already strict and distant at the beginning of the play, Li-Young's father emerges from prison a more devout Christian than he was before--and an even more remote father. Mura gets the emotionally detached part right, but denies the audience a deeper understanding of the man behind the silence. Lee's father is ostensibly a great thinker and orator but, since we hardly ever get to see him make use of those skills, he comes off as little more than an intolerant religious zealot.
Director Dipankar Mukherjee tries valiantly to imbue Lee's tale with a sweeping sense of history. To give certain scenes an extra boost, he even uses the kind of melodramatic orchestral swellings one normally only hears in movies that are trying to make themselves seem to be more than they really are. (To Pangea's credit, Seitu Jones's scenography, which employs a series of long poles nailed together at odd angles, is quite effective at carving out certain spaces--particularly when the father is in prison.)
The most engaging parts of The Winged Seed follow this mysterious perspective between reality and imagination, evoking something akin to a Jorge Luis Borges short story: the coffin maker in rags who points the finger of doom; the hail that falls only on the family's house in Jakarta and nowhere else; the nanny who serves snakes for dinner and tells gruesome bedtime stories. These odd, incongruous details add an element of intrigue that make one yearn for a less cohesive, more challenging narrative--one that draws you into the story and makes you work a little bit.
In the program notes, Mura explains the behavior of his character by quoting Alan Watts on the difference between the Western and Asian teaching traditions: "In our [Western] world, a teacher tries the utmost to make himself understood. In oriental cultures, teachers expect the student to make the effort to attain the understanding... the feeling is that what comes to you too easily doesn't really come to you."
Unfortunately, it appears that in sacrificing the power of Lee's writing on the altar of accessibility, The Winged Seed goes West when it should have gone East.
The Winged Seed continues at the Guthrie Lab through November 9; call 377-2224.
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