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Eric Steinberg, Ching Valdes-Aran, and
Kati Kuroda in Last of the Suns
(Photo © Ching Gonzalez)
"Let me die," cries a wheelchair-bound figure at the beginning of Alice Tuan's Last of the Suns. It is the 100-year-old General Sun, an ex-Nationalist Chinese general now living with his family in California. Played in this production by actress Ching Valdes-Aran in a startling cross-gender performance, the power of this opening moment is unfortunately not maintained throughout the rest of the play. Tuan's text attempts to interweave the general's memories and inner thoughts with the contemporary story of his dysfunctional family, an ambitious move that does not quite succeed.

Produced by the Ma-Yi Theatre Company and directed by Chay Yew, Last of the Suns takes place on the general's 100th birthday. As the action begins, the old man's mind seems to be overrun by memories and mythological figures. Most prominent among these are the Monkey King (Eric Steinberg) and Eight Pig (Kati Kuroda). Both characters are derived from the classic 16th-century Chinese novel Journey to the West, which the general read over and over in his younger days. These two function as guides, alternately mocking the general and helping him to find a path toward personal redemption.

The other major story within the play is that of the general's granddaughter, Twila (Tess Lina). A former ice skating star, Twila disappeared five years before the action begins -- much to the embarrassment of her family -- and hasn't been heard from since then. Upon her grandfather's birthday, the prodigal daughter returns seeking forgiveness from the entire family but in particular from her mother, Ni Lee (Mia Katigbak).

One of the play's structural problems is that the connections between General Sun's dream world and his present-day life are never made clear. The Monkey King and Eight Pig tell the general that he must gain the forgiveness of May Lee (also played by Tess Lina), one of his former concubines, whom he had forced to undergo a torturous foot-binding process even after that custom had been abandoned by most Chinese for its mutilation of women's bodies. The importance of May Lee in the general's life is never completely explained. Are we to assume she is the mother of the general's youngest son, Ho Ping (Ron Nakahara), who is Twila's father and who takes in the general during his final days? This would make sense and would underscore the connections between the two plot threads, yet the information that we are given is agonizingly incomplete.

Nor is it clear how much of the general's dream world is, in fact, a reality. Ni Lee sees the figures of the Monkey King and Eight Pig, which indicates that they have a tangible presence. Provocatively, this makes them more than an old man's delusion. An earlier dream world scene features the general's First Wife (also played by Mia Katigbak) urging May Lee to go to the general so that they can escape the endless loop of his memories. The autonomy exhibited by these figures lends a concreteness to the dream world but, again, this is not fully explored.

If the script is unclear, the technical elements of the production are most definitely not. Sarah Lambert's stylish scenic design consists of an entirely white stage with a painted red circle in its center. James Vermeulen's lighting design takes advantage of the blankness of the set to create complete environments through color and focus; for example, the opening moments of the play are top lit by a harsh white light, creating a stark and almost frightening picture.

Pun Bandhu and Tess Lina in Last of the Suns
(Photo © Ching Gonzalez)
For the most part, the ensemble cast is quite good. Katigbak creates an especially complex and fascinating portrait of Ni Lee. In one of the scenes between Ni Lee and Twila, the audience witnesses the brief flashes of emotion that occasionally escape from Ni Lee's otherwise steely, cold façade. Nakahara also excels, capturing the repressed hatred of a dutiful son for the father who used to abuse him. Valdes-Aran succeeds in a most difficult role, giving her portrayal of the general both a pathetic quality and a sense of dignity. The cross-gender casting is pulled off without a hitch. (There is even a rather daring nude scene.)

Pun Bandhu as Sonny (Ho Ping and Ni Lee's other child) brings a freshness and energy to his scenes; his initial entrance, made while performing an Asian American rap is both hilarious and invigorating. The only major disappointment among the cast is Lina in her dual roles as Twila and May Lee. The actress seems unable to get underneath the surface emotions of these characters; the undercurrent of fear, guilt, anger, and accusation is there in the writing but, in Lina's interpretation, comes across as one-note whining.

Tuan's writing displays a willingness to experiment that is bracing; however, it also demonstrates an incompleteness that is frustrating. The playwright has a number of interesting ideas but they are not always fully developed, nor do they cohere into a unified vision. As evidenced by her more recent play Ajax (por nobody), produced by the Flea in 2001, Tuan's experimentation with form and character types can be both entertaining and thought-provoking. Written in 1995, Last of the Suns is an early effort by a young and talented writer whose best work is still to come.

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