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`Lotus Lessons' a thoughtful tale of identity.

Byline: Richard Leinaweaver For The Register-Guard

The University of Oregon's theater program was dislocated this year while the Robinson Theatre was being remodeled. Undaunted, it produced shows in cooperative efforts with Lane Community College, Willamette Repertory Theatre and currently with the Lord Leebrick Theatre, where a zombied Hamlet presently reigns.

But the University Theatre's Second Season, which produces plays in the small arena theater in Villard Hall, has continued. This season's "wrap-up" is the world premiere of Wendy Williams' "Lotus Lessons."

There is a clap of Chinese percussion as the lights come up on a girl standing in her bedroom with a red bandana draped over her head. Stylized Chinese themes cover the mural-filled walls. A prominently displayed abacus, lots of variously sized stuffed pandas and a large gong tell us that we're not in Kansas anymore.

But soon the girl, Emma, returns us to the here and now by indulging in a lengthy tirade about her mother, her life, a crying baby, the world around her, her isolation - in short, the hormonal running of the teen genes.

Emma is having an identity crisis. Not unusual, but for her, compounded by the fact that she was abandoned by her Chinese mother, lived nine years in a Chinese orphanage and was finally adopted by her American mother and brought to her new home in this strange land.

Interrupting her self-indulgent rant is the appearance of one Afong Moy, a Chinese woman in traditional dress and traditional manner, who seems assigned to help Emma resolve her confusion. She immediately realizes that "we have work to do." Who is this woman? She tells Emma something of herself, common experiences. She has given up a daughter. They begin to communicate. But wait. Afong Moy was reputedly the first Chinese woman to come to America, 174 years ago! She was brought to New York by two entrepreneurs, Nathanial and Frederick Carne, displayed in an exhibition hall on Park Place, for 50 cents admission, with only slightly more dignity than a Barnum & Bailey show.

What is she doing here then? Are we in a fantasy? Are we in Emma's conscious or unconscious memory?

Joining them are three other strange figures, the White Ghost, a popular figure from traditional Chinese Opera, and two mute "dancers," theater conventions who alternate as characters, scenery, props and expressions of mood.

Emma feels trapped. She is sometimes obsessed with finding or imagining her birth mother. Afong laments her own lost child in a touching soliloquy, inquiring of the White Ghost, "Where is my daughter?" and discovering that she too was given up by her mother.

Afong proposes a 12-step program to find out who we are. And that's what it's about. All of us adoptees have unknown pasts to factor, complicating the formula, causing great angst for some. But eventually, we all must create ourselves.

Fangdian Du's portrayal of Afong Moy is by far the best thing in the show. Note her natural dialect and her measured physical mannerisms.

One of the least rewarding jobs in theater is that of understudy. Katy Pellissier did a splendid job performing Emma with barely more than a week's preparation.

Martin Fogarty played the "dan" role of the White Ghost. In Chinese opera, as in Elizabethan and ancient Greek theater, women's roles were played by men. Fogerty was an imposing diva, all 6-feet-plus of him in gorgeous flowing costume and extreme operatic makeup. His performance of Yokko Usami's choreography was convincing, only lacking the polish and ease that a White Ghost's lifetime training would have.

Megan Joy and Yokko as the "dancers" stayed frozen in scenic tableaux except when efficiently following the Ghost's orders into the action.

There may be small difficulty in orienting an audience raised on television, MySpace and cell phone input into the conventions of "Lotus Lessons." But we appreciate director Theresa May giving us the opportunity with this fine staging of Wendy Williams' thoughtful piece.


Lotus Lessons

When: 8 p.m. today, Saturday and May 29-31

Where: UO's arena theater, 104 Villard Hall, 1109 Old Campus Lane

Tickets: $6; call 346-4363

Richard Leinaweaver, a professor emeritus of theater arts, reviews theater for The Register-Guard.
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Title Annotation:Reviews; The play wraps up the UO theater department's Second Season
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 23, 2008
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