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A CurtainUp LA Review

By Laura Hitchcock

The winds of change are sweeping Japan in 1957 where Velina Hasu Houston's play Ikebana is set. The title refers to the delicate perishable sculpture of Japanese flower arrangements, which to the Japanese refer to a deeper meditative approach to life. Houston uses it as an image for the beautiful but rigid cultural conformity imposed on women at that time.

Houston has written a play of many riches. It is complex and lyrical, with a sense of humor and a dash of surrealism.

The play's focal point is Hanako (Lina Patel), an Amerasian girl, hired as a maid by Dr. Itamura (Dana Lee). Her exotic half-Western, half-Japanese beauty and herdesire for an independent life make her an example to timid Ayame (June Angela), the doctor's dominated daughter; a desirable trophy to the Doctor; and an equally desirable symbol of freedom from tradition for the two young doctors who are potential suitors for Ayame.

The wealthy and artistocratic Kityama (Francisco Viana) advises his poor colleague Hakamura (Gedde Watanabe) to marry Ayame and become heir to her father's position. Hakamura's noble plans include moving to the provinces to minister to the poor. However, by Act II he has acceded to family pressure to commit to Ayame. All three men demonstrate Japan's conflict between a fascination with Western power and freedom and a fear of the changes which the loss of their traditional culture will bring.

Of the four characters who see Hanako as some sort of solution to their personal ambivalence or a bridge between the Eastern and Western worlds, the only one she responds to is gentle Ayame and it is only Ayame who changes. Director Shirley Jo Finney, who worked with Houston on the project at the request of Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps, has brought out the play's emotional life, highlighted by the strong, luminous performance of Lina Patel in the focal role of Hanako.

The scenes between the two young doctors shrewdly display their bond in professional striving and their divisiveness in Japan's rigid class structure. A solid performance by Gette Watanabe shows us his panting willingness to marry Ayame for profit and his subsequent assertion that Hanako is more suited to him because they are both poor. June Angela catches the colors in Ayame's repressed and timid maiden who blossoms in Hanako's friendship. Dana Lee never veers from the fiercely tyrannical as the doctor, whose only relief is in drink. Francisco Viana brings petulant angst to Kitayama, whose declaration to Hanako comes too little and too late.

Elements of the magical realism Houston loves are exhibited in the opening and closing tableaus which could come from classical Japanese Noh and Kabuki productions. There's also a magic apple, symbolizing Dr. Itamura's obsession with Hanako, an apple he keeps until she turns it into silver dust and blows it away. A third hint of magical realism is the flower stems twining table legs and pink flowers growing on bushes (classic Japanese gardens contain only green bushes and stones). Perhaps those pink flowers, like the red bridge that spans Andrei Both's striking set, symbolize the yearning to have the best of both worlds.

Editor's Note: CurtainUp reviewed another Houston play, Tea in which one of the performers, June Angela, also appeared.

by Velina Hasu Houston
Directed by Shirley Jo Finney
Cast: Ayame (June Angela); Itamura (Dana Lee); Hanako (Lina Patel); Kitayama (Francisco Viana); Hakamura (Gedde Watanabe)
Set Design: Andrei Both
Lighting Design: Victor En Yu Tan
Costume Design: Lydia Tanji
Sound Design and Original Music: Mitch Greenhill Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission
9/08/2000-10/22/2000; opening, 9/17/2000
The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena CA Phone: (626) 792-8672
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock based on Sept. 17 performance

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