The world of Alice Tuan's Last of the Suns is one that, as in many great plays, exists somewhere between the real and the fantastic. Real people seem fictional, imaginary creatures are among the most human characters, and absolutely nothing is as it seems at first glance.
But that's to be expected, for how often in the world of the theatre, whether on New York's Broadway or at the Beijing opera, is true reality the most interesting thing happening? Sometimes it's possible to find a truer, more colorful reality through less conventional means. This is what Tuan does in Last of the Suns, combining American and Chinese storytelling techniques to devise a highly theatrical depiction of life that bridges the gaps existing between the two cultures and creates something new in the process.
While Tuan's story is fairly simple - a young woman, a former skating star with hopes for Olympic glory, deserts her parents and brother, leaving them in near-poverty and shattering their hopes for the fame and acclaim few countries other than the United States afford. While the story has much to do with obligation and youthful rebellion, what sets the story apart is that it's seen through the eyes of the woman's 100 year-old grandfather.
Of course, he's unable to speak more than a couple of words at a time or distinguish the people around him from others he's known throughout his life, and he lives a great deal in his memories, both real and imagined. His companions are the Monkey King and the Eight Pig, who interpret the world for both him and the audience through their easily accessible, yet highly stylized dialogue and movement. (The program bears a credit for Jamie H. J. Guan as Peking Opera Movement Coach.) They summon the past, illuminate the present, and try to help Yeh Yeh make sense of a world he has long been unable to connect with.
Chay Yew has provided sharp direction for the piece, keeping the transitions swift and helping make sense out of the complicated interplay between reality and fantasy. Rebecca Dowd's costumes and James Vermeulen's lights set the ideal atmosphere, while Sarah Lambert's set - consisting of little more than a field and horizon of white and a large red circle - provides a canvas of functionally infinite scenic possibilities.
Tuan's world is one where magic and fun can be found throughout the darkness; though the subject matter is frequently serious (female mutilation, suicide, and familial obligation), comedy is rife, and entertainment plentiful. While Tuan's points could occasionally be made a bit more incisively, preventing the lulls that occur in some of the less emotionally involving interior scenes that Yew can't keep fast-paced, the play's insights and presentation never grow old, and seem relevant up to the final visually-stirring moments.
Ching Valdes-Aran gives the play's most impressive performance, convincingly changing sex and gaining several decades of age to find the innocence and complexities of Yeh Yeh. Tess Lina and Pun Bandhu provide good, and appropriately different, performances as his grandchildren, while Ron Nakahara and particularly Mia Katigbak give very funny and moving understated performances as their parents. Eric Steinberg and Kati Kuroda bring some great comic precision to Monkey King and Eight Pig, if sometimes pushing a bit too hard.
As an examination of memory, age, and perception, Last of the Suns is good enough. As an example of how theatre can be used to bridge gaps between cultures, generations, and even theatregoers, it's even better.
Ma-Yi Theatre Company