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What's New on the Rialto

Interview with LAByrinth Theater Company's Yul Vázquez
and Stephen McKinley Henderson

By Beth Herstein

The LAByrinth Theater Company's The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is currently running at the Public Theater, where the LAByrinth is "in residence." In the play, written by longtime LAByrinth member Stephen Adly Guirgis [Jesus Hopped the A Train, Our Lady of 121st Street] and directed by the Company's Co-Artistic Director [and frequent Guirgis collaborator] Philip Seymour Hoffman, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham [Callie Thorne], an agnostic lawyer residing in Purgatory, files an appeal in the case of God and the Kingdom of Heaven vs. Judas Iscariot. Cunningham's goal is nothing less than to obtain the release from Hell of Judas Iscariot [Sam Rockwell], the infamous apostle who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. In Guirgis's play, Judas resides in Hell in a perpetually catatonic state, and therefore he has not petitioned the court on his own behalf. As Cunningham sees it, this makes Judas the most deserving of her help, and the most in need of forgiveness. In the trial that follows, Cunningham is pitted against Yusef El-Fayoumy [Yul Vázquez]. At various points, they call as expert witnesses such figures as Pontius Pilate [Stephen McKinley Henderson] and Satan [Eric Bogosian]; and, as a character witness, "Henrietta" Iscariot [Debra Rush], Judas's mother.

The trial culminates with a monologue by Butch Honeywell, one of the jurors, and a moving interaction between Judas and Jesus, both of which put the rest of the play into context. Long, intricate, and full of virtuosic monologues, the play - though uneven - is notable not only for its undeniable intellectualism and the strong performances of all of the actors, but for the humanity and reverence at its core, and the passion and daring with which it examines concepts such as love, judgment and our place in the cosmos.


Adrian Martinez, Yul Vázquez and Jeffrey DeMunn in
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

I recently interviewed two of Last Days's accomplished performers - original Lab member Yul Vázquez, who plays Yusef El-Fayoumy; and, veteran actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, who has a scene stealing moment as Pontius Pilate - at the Public. The two actors raved about the show, each other and the intoxicating experience of working with the LAByrinth Theater Company. As Vázquez put it, "I wish upon every actor that they would get to work in this company at least once."

Beth Herstein [to Yul Vázquez]:  You were in the workshop of Last Days. Can you talk a little about how the show has evolved?

Yul Vázquez:  I can give you my time line. I got a phone call from Stephen [Adly Guirgis], saying he had this idea for a show. He called me and he called Sam [Rockwell]. He asked us to come out to the summer intensive, [a one-to-two week program of LAByrinth] which we do every year. This was two years ago. When we got there, [Guirgis] didn't have any pages. [To Henderson]: You're laughing. Now, you know him. You're like, of course.

Stephen McKinley Henderson:  Oh, yeah.

YV:    When Sam and I first got off the train, we went over to see [Guirgis]. He saw us coming and he said, "Don't ask me anything. I don't have any pages." And, I said, "Dude, we're just saying hello. We just got here."

The rehearsal was the next morning at around 10am. That night, he wrote 28 pages. He didn't sleep. He does that often.

BH:   He crammed, and cranked it out?

YV:    Yes. He can sit at the computer for 30 hours. It's pretty crazy. And, then he comes in the next morning, and he looks like a ghost. But, he had 28 pages. And, that's what we read. And, then a lot of time passed, and he wrote more pages; and, we gave another reading. Then we did the Barn Series [LAByrinth's annual - and free - series of staged readings of works-in-progress]. At that point he had 58 or 60 pages. From there we did a week-long workshop with Phil [Philip Seymour Hoffman] and him and a bunch of actors. From there we got to this, what you see today. Some people have switched parts. I've always only done El-Fayoumy.

BH [to SMH]: Was your experience similar?

SMH:    I had just come out of an experience that was very different for me. I was in a musical [the recent Broadway production of Dracula.] I had never been in a musical before. I was really hoping, the next thing I do, I want to be as far away from this as possible. Well - I got it! [Laughter.] Because in that experience, everything was so set. I had come in late and replaced someone, and everything that I had to do was prescribed. Then, I got to this situation, where anything goes. It's such a creative process. Even the audition was really free. And, it started going from there. I don't remember seeing the same script three days running in the first few weeks. It was wonderful how it was growing. Then, it had to sort of contract, and so that happened. It was always getting better. The roles that Yul and Jeffrey [De Munn, who plays the Judge, and also performs in a few other parts] and Callie [Thorne] were doing were really changing radically. They had to learn an awful lot. So, I was really glad - first of all, to get to be a part of the LAByrinth but also glad that I started out with baby steps. Because they were going through a lot. Clearly though, they were at home with it. They knew what to expect.

Then, there was Philip. He and Stephen have a simpatico together. They speak in a shorthand that is really something to watch. To see the company members who are aware of this relationship, and to see them delight in the new heights that the two of them reach - for me, it really is what I consider to be where the theater has arrived. This is where it lives. It arrives on the shoulders of all the giants - all the classic and non-classic, the absurdist - every style that you can think of. Everybody went in there with all the tools and they went to work. It's just incredible to watch.

YV:  Stephen [McKinley Henderson] made a great comment. He said, "You guys are building plays, and people aren't doing that." We are building plays, and that's what has happened here.

BH:  It sounds like you all get to contribute creatively. The writer and director don't huddle in a corner and come back with changes that they impose on you.

SMH:    [Guirgis and Hoffman] don't ask you, "What do you think of this? What should you do here?" What they do is set you in motion and let you act. Then the two of them uncannily observe stuff in your performance that you might have missed yourself. And, they'll come back the next day, and they will have picked the bones out of the fish so that there's nothing but good fish meat left. That's what's so amazing. You get a chance to contribute, all right. But, it's through doing what you do. Also, you do get that sense, when you see Philip and Stephen the next day, that even though you're tired, you got more sleep than they did. It's what allows you to let Philip push you and the playwright push you to your limit. You know that they're operating at capacity too.

YV:  And, you do get pushed. Just when you think that you've hit the wall, they'll push a little more. It's an intense thing. But then you turn around and have the show that we have, which I think is a unique and massive show. The scope of the show and what it throws at you - and the tools that are used to get that information across. They use humor, and then you turn around, and they hit you on the head with a hammer. I see people thinking to themselves, "I can't believe what that guy just said."

SMH:  Sometimes you also can catch them saying, "Did I really just laugh at that?"

YV:  Right. Which is really great.

SMH:  The other thing is - and I've always thought this about theater - you really have to be a human being first to be a true dramatic artist. Some part of you has to feel empathy for other human beings and their circumstances. So the brotherhood that exists inside our dressing room is so wonderful. And, I know it's going on in the room next to me too. Then, [on the stage], I see people taking care of each other. If there's a person in trouble, arms just go reaching out.

There's something about that, that makes you ok. I play a kind of a despicable guy. But, at the same time, he deserves a defense. As in any courtroom, in a drama in the theater, every character has to be given a defense. Doing this show, because we're around so much humanity, and such real and plain goodness, it makes it ok to go out there and go to whatever ugly place you have to go to to squeeze out the beauty that ultimately surfaces. It allows people to go places with each other. Philip says, when you really have to go after somebody else, when you two are really at odds with each other, the further you go with that, that's a way of loving.

BH [to YV]: Now, you've been with the LAByrinth Company for a while.

YV:  I'm one of the original members.

BH:  How has the company has grown over the years?

YV:  We were given a space - the old Intar [Hispanic American Arts Center] space I believe it was. They just used it to store stuff. There was no heating, there were rats. There was a stage and some chairs. That's where we started. We started doing some improvisations and playing theater games. Then we put up our first piece. There was no money. We'd throw these parties - we'd buy beer and liquor and sell drinks and make enough money to put on the show.

We were very fortunate. A lot of people attempt the same thing and can't do it. There was a tremendous amount of dedication, and a tremendous amount of blessings bestowed upon the company. It's a noble thing to do and there's no money to be made, and there's nothing but heartache in the end to take home at first. But, LAByrinth began growing from there. Stephen [Guirgis] started to write plays. Because, you know, Stephen was trained as an actor.

It's funny, actually, because Stephen and Stephen, Sam, myself, a bunch of people in the show studied with the same teacher, a man by the name of William Esper. He came to the show the other night, and he was so proud of us. He said, "You guys have become artists."

SMH:  When Bill came to the show the other night, it was really clear that we were all in the right place, all doing what we're supposed to be doing. That's really meaningful. You can make a living at this - sometimes. But, you're fulfilled by it at rare times. Where the fulfillment fills your spirit, fills your soul, and you know you're doing the right thing. That will only come along a few times ... This is one of those experiences. It will keep me in the business for another several years. I've been very fortunate. I've worked with August Wilson, developing his show [Jitney.] That kept me alive for a while. We did one show for a long time, and it kept me going. Then, I was in a dearth. I went through a period wondering, "Oh, man, what's going to happen?" And, [snaps his fingers], here it is. The LAByrinth.

BH:  How do you compare this to the experience of working with August Wilson? You've done such wonderful ensemble work with him, with great actors also.

SMH:  There's no need to compare it. It's like all the rivers running into the lake of truth. One river comes from the north, one from the south. It's all pouring in. And, you know it, you recognize it, because you've been there before.

There was a feeling when I was doing Jitney, that every person seemed to be making their contribution from the right place. That's what I feel here. And, it's really wonderful to have had a sizable role in that show and to have a contributing role in this one ... It's a joy.

One of the things that I'd be remiss not to mention is that in this particular experience we've had a spiritual leader. Reverend Jim has served as dramaturg and theologian for Stephen and Philip and us.

BH:  Reverend Jim?

SMH:  Reverend Jim Martin. He's a Jesuit priest. He gave us reading material and a wonderful time at the table, where we just sat and talked about the play. We had these three days where it was just fabulous to get to know each other through the play ... And, we got to see the layers of the play. Stephen's genius as a writer is to approach these really traditional classical theological dialogues and discussions and to make them so right now and right there in front of you.

YV:  His language just pours out of you. You can act it, it's just amazing. You read it and you go [snaps his fingers] - right away. It's just amazing. Who writes like that? Nobody writes like that ...

BH:  Another thing I wanted to ask about is the casting. This is one of the best examples of nontraditional casting I've seen, because the ethnicity of the actors is irrelevant.

SMH:  People talk a lot about this idea of nontraditional casting. But, you know - there's no altruism involved in it. It's not like, "We're going to let a woman play this role because we should. It's time." The woman comes in and they say, "She can play this really wonderfully." Or, if they cast James Earl Jones as Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," it's not because they're trying to do something noble. It's going to sell tickets.

But, what the LAByrinth Company has done has really gone past that, into areas where any ethnic type or gender type can play any particular human spirit. The whole company started as a group of artists who happened to cross cultural lines. But, it was the artists who formed the company. They bring their fingerprints and their DNA and everything with them. It all comes as a package.

BH [to YV]: In some of the shows that you've been in with the LAByrinth, the ethnicity of the characters is a crucial part of it, but, here it doesn't matter.

SMH:    Which is a major theological statement in itself.


Stephen McKinley Henderson, Callie Thorne and
Jeffrey DeMunn in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

BH:   Now, tell me about playing the role of Pilate. You have some of the most difficult lines for the audience to hear. How do you approach that, and how hard is it to take on that character?

SMH:  It's what you do as an actor all the time. You're trying to incorporate emotional points of view. You are trying to say, "I want this to be my point of view about this. Not just my line, but how I feel about it." The uniqueness comes in because of what the playwright's put in there ... What Stephen has here, it touches you and inspires you in a particular way that's very unique. Because he's written it in such a unique way. . . .

The thing I always worry about is this. The character has a secret - always - that he doesn't tell anybody about. As an actor, you've got to know what that secret is. You can't tell it, you've got to just know it. I found my secret for Pilate. For me, it was always a matter of trying to understand why Pilate can say, "I live in Heaven" - which, in Stephen's world, he does. I had to find the honorable side of him. Pilate has gone to speak at thousands of these trials, for different reasons ... God sends him in there. And, I think that this is why: because he's got to make his penance.

I do know that the first time [Pilate] laid eyes on Jesus, he'd heard all this stuff and he had a position ... But, then he looked into the guy's eyes, and he knew that there was something special about him. And, I think that - God knows your heart, so God knows that the day Pilate looked in his eyes he saw it. Something that's irrefutable. And, that's why Pilate's point of view is of use in seeking the truth.

YV:  That's right.

SMH:  At one point, Pilate was in the first act, then Satan came. That's also how they build plays here. You don't w-r-i-t-e a play. You w-r-i-g-h-t a play, like a shipwright. Part of it's scribed, but the rest of it is put up on its feet and built. This play, I think, is constructed pretty soundly. And, it's dangerous, which is also pretty wonderful - to have a piece of theater that has its danger.

The other thing about working with Stephen is that when he writes things and he has to cut it out - it's still in your history. You don't get to say it anymore, but it's there.

YV:  Stephen's cut stuff out of this play that was absolutely genius, that you hated to see go. But, you have to be ruthless, you have to be absolutely ruthless in the process. Just meat, no crap. And, move, move, move, move, move. One of my main jobs in the play is to keep it moving.

BH [to YV]: You provide comic relief, yet your character has his tragedy and poignance. You have to balance that, and construct a fictional character.

SMH:  He has crafted one of the most complex and entertaining characters. I have never seen any character as complex and entertaining. It's fabulous to witness, and to be in his hands. When I'm out there, I do this whole thing with [Callie Thorne, as the attorney Cunningham], and I'm ready to leave. Then, [Vázquez, as El-Fayoumy] calls me back in and I'm exasperated. But, then I realize - I'm in good hands. I definitely understand why he's the only one who's played that role.

YV:  That's a huge compliment coming from this man. I look up to this man. We're very lucky to have everyone in this show. But, we're really lucky to have [Henderson] and Jeffrey DeMunn. These men are the real thing. They have years and a tremendous amount of experience that they bring to the table. I watch some of the company members who are younger looking at these guys, going, "Give me a fucking break!" I mean - they're lethal. You can't buy that. It's built. It's built through years of experience.

SMH:  We have a great mutual admiration society in this company. Which is as it should be. I tell you, [it's great] to find a place to come where they do appreciate you. Because you do kick around, you do a lot of stuff out here. You're in and you're out ... It means something to be able to make a contribution to these people who have built something. They have got a company, they've got a reputation, they can do it at the Public. But, they go back to a place, like Yul said, where they were selling drinks and working at a place with all the rats. If Jeffrey and I are making a contribution, it's to our benefit to have a place like this to make a contribution.

YV:  It's funny, during all the casting sessions, Stephen [Adly Guirgis] would call me and tell me what happened that day. Phil was in Toronto shooting [Capote, Hoffman's upcoming bio-drama about Truman Capote], so he wasn't here. So, Stephen was holding the auditions and calling us up to tell us about them. After [Stephen McKinley Henderson] auditioned, Stephen called me and said, "This guy just came in and he tore it up. I think he's gonna be the guy."

SMH:  That's another thing about this company. This is the only time I've auditioned and been hired without the director even seeing me. But, that's the kind of trust and respect they have for each other here.

BH:   Can you comment a little on the staging of the show?

YV:  Brilliantly staged. Phil deserves a lot of credit. He is a tremendous actor and a tremendous director. This is a monstrous undertaking, and there's an enormous cast. You have a tracking issue just alone that is unbelievable. The way the set is lit - and what a great space we've got to hold this set. I mean, we're so blessed. You couldn't have a better space. You're in some type of a cathedral or some type of otherworldly place. I really marvel at how he did that.

BH:  Earlier, you all mentioned having discussions about yourselves and about theology. How much have you brought into the show, and how much has the show impacted on your beliefs?

YV:  Stephen said something really interesting. You have to be a human being before you can be anything else. A carpenter, a plumber, anything. To me, it's about actions. When I lay my head down at night, I know that I didn't try to screw anybody over or hurt anybody over or gossip, which is something that I dislike. I was raised Catholic, I believe in God, but I believe that actions are what's key. You can go to church and read all the gospels, then go out and be an idiot to somebody, or rob somebody or cheat somebody. To me, you're a zero.

SMH:  You bring all your experiences to bear on whatever work you do. And, this play calls for that. And, then it gives you something back. You don't have to be perfect to seek perfection. This show holds that ideal up so high, because we all want to be Christlike. There's something that John [Ortiz, who plays Jesus] does - the line that he walks onstage with, when he applies his first kiss. He says, "I'm with everybody." It's so important to hear that articulated in wartime. That doesn't change this ideal. That is what the play re-establishes.

And Butch at the end - "I've been young and foolishly unfaithful" - You learn how to be faithful in love because of messing up somewhere. You have the love you have, that you cherish; but there's also the love that you learn how to love. That means a lot. And, that's another thing the play always reminds me of. Being faithful is about faith! The genius of equating that marriage with Judas and Jesus - so, it really does relate to us on a real level. I'm proud to be a survivor as a human being and to be a part of something that is pointing toward survival. We're in a bleak time. People talk about the language in a play. This is wonderful use of language. Then, I go into the subway and hear people disrespecting elders, I don't like that. But, I love to see Mother Theresa come out and swear. I think that in time they'll read and understand that this is not sanctioning something that you're doing. What are your ideas? What are your thoughts? It's not just words - what do these words mean? They're using these words to say some heavy stuff. You've gotta have ideas. You are not just loud and profane. You've got to really hold that idea and sharpen it up. Stephen's ideas are crisp and sharp. And, even people who are critical, they know bloody well what he's saying.

BH:  Have you had any negative response to the show for this reason?

SMH:  There's an awkwardness sometimes. But, what's so wonderful is that we've not lost the audience. I've been in shows with profanity and people have walked out. We don't lose anyone, and we have people coming back a second time.

YV:  It's a lot to digest for one sitting. There's a lot that's coming at you at a very high speed. If you are not an active audience member - this is exactly the show where the audience has to be active. You have to actively listen. If you lay back and watch, you're going to miss something. There are moments out there where I can feel that I'm ahead of the audience. Which is a good thing. Because you never want the audience to be ahead of you. But, I can see in faces, "What's happening now?" It's just moving, moving, moving.

This is not the kind of show where you can go, "Let's call the Smiths tonight and get four tickets to that Judas play. And, then go have a drink." - and then forget about it. That after show drink is going to be something. They are going to be forced to talk about what they saw, because [the play] touches a soft spot in people in what is a touchy area.

BH:  There are two reference points in addition to the Bible I wanted to ask you all about. One is Dante - there are some direct references, but also symbolically, the idea that in hell, people are entrapped in themselves. Another, in a way - I don't know if you all see it - but, in a structural sort of way that plays into the meaning, Our Town.

SMH:  Thornton Wilder.

BH:  Yes. Because, the whole play - the trial - leads up to the end, which shows you what it's really all about. Like in Our Town, you have to go through so much ordinariness. Because you don't understand the meaning of things until you see it from the different perspective.

SMH:  I see what you're saying. I hadn't thought of it before. As for the Dante thing, my character refers to the ninth circle of hell, and there are other references also. I think it was Cassius and Brutus and Judas in one place in Dante's hell. Judas is not dealt with. There's not even any talk about why he's there. He's the least sympathetic and he deserves more.

The thing about Our Town, that's interesting. It really is a great American play, that's a great play. You have to appreciate your life while you're living it. We're all held to account. That's another idea that Stephen lays out there, that - we're all going to be held to account, for ourselves. Nobody knows your stuff any better and is less relenting in your punishment. I know it's so for me.

When Yul asks Pilate about remorse, it's perfect. Because, Pilate says, "I can say I'm an expert on it, because God knows I have great remorse about my part in the Passion. And, that, I know in my heart."

YV:  You are an expert in that. We know that better than you do. Expert witness.

SMH:  All right, then, he can say. I did another one. Maybe I'm a little closer to absolution. Even to be in heaven - that's what I love. To be in heaven and to have made mistakes. You have to be able to forgive yourself and to correct behavior. It's not just about the forgiving, it's about the correcting. That's why I think people cry at the end of the play. They see Judas and they see Butch - but they also see part of their own lives. They know someone whose whole problem is that they won't forgive themselves.

YV:  There's this philosophy that says one of the greatest things that you can do is to truly look inside of yourself and like what you see.

BH:  It's a difficult thing. We can be very forgiving and generous with other people, and not be as kind to ourselves.

SMH:  You can be very unfair when it comes to your own children, too. I'm very fortunate. I have a son and he's a wonderful guy. I love his character, I love who he is. But, I can see - I blame myself for any negative quality in him that comes from me. He would not have that example if it wasn't for me.

YV:  Sam and I were having a conversation the other day about starting to see things in ourselves that we see in our parents. Stuff that you don't like in the parent and you're seeing it in yourself.

BH [to SMH]: You're a professor at SUNY- Buffalo. I know your students have come to other shows of yours. Have you brought your students to this show?

SMH:  They come on their own. Some of them came on their recent break ... That's the other thing, it's this greatest thing. My students tell me, "You've done August Wilson and now the LAByrinth Company. How cool is that!"

BH:  Actually, it's pretty cool.

SMH:  It's cool for me, too. It's also great that they see it's not some magic thing. I am 55 years old, and I'm still running with the big boys. They see that it's really just a matter of dedicating your life to doing it. You don't have to have a fast track, talking about your career.

BH:  You were also in the first acting class at Juilliard.

SMH:  Yeah. I was in Group One. And, that is also where some of my remorse comes from. [Laughs.] Because I left. It was the sixties, and there was a lot of stuff going on. So, I went to work with [Amiri] Baraka - Leroi Jones - and I went down south and did some stuff with the Panther party. It's a great opportunity at 17, 18 years old to be cloistered away doing the classics - but in '68 and '69 you look out the window and see what is going on, and you're inside doing a sonnet. You don't understand it. I had to do what Edward Albee says. I had to go a long way out of the way to do a short distance correctly. But, I feel better for it. And, I'm still here at a time where there's August Wilson and there's the LAByrinth Company.

There were lines drawn back there - all you can do is be torn. Are you black enough for this? That kind of nonsense. So, to be on the scene today - it's challenging and it's difficult. But, boy is it better. People always talk about love and peace in the 60s. There was less love and less peace then that at any time in America's history other than the Civil War. And, the artist's who screamed for love and peace, because there was no love and there was no peace. And, we got a lot of polished stuff going on today. As far as I'm concerned LAByrinth is the place I really needed to exist. What these men and women have built here - and the total passion, which I must say, I'm not surprised is coming from the Latin faction. They greet each other with love.

YV:  We're not afraid to touch each other.

BH [to SMH]: You're also involved in a project concerning Paul Robeson.

SMH:    It's at Lafayette College in Eastern Pennsylvania. A friend of mine, Dr. Samuel Hay, is on the faculty there. He's written two plays about Robeson. I was in one ... and I directed another one. Now, he's calling back some of the actors who've worked with him before to read from "Here I Stand." It's a four day event, from April 7-9. It ends on Robeson's birthday, April 9. Robeson Jr. will be the keynote speaker and international papers are being delivered from all over the world. [Dr. Hay] has done this once before. I was part of that, too. I'm very glad and very proud to be associated with this project.

BH [to YV]: I wanted to ask you about your upcoming film, War of the Worlds.

YV:  Yes. It's being directed by Spielberg.

BH:  It's a pretty big movie.

YV[nods]: Doesn't get bigger. That's an interesting one because there's a confidentiality issue. I can tell you my character's name, and that's all I can actually say about it.

I was hired to do this movie and I wasn't given any script until three days before I had to shoot. They only gave me my pages, and my name was watermarked on them. So, that way, if anyone makes copies of the script and distributes the pages, they know where they come from.

But, it was an amazing experience. I had never met anybody. I was cast, I was offered the part from my reel. I showed up to work, I was introduced to Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg shook my hand. Spielberg says, "Here's what we're going to do. And, we just went forward." And, they were just unbelievable to work with. It was an amazing experience. Spielberg is just going to scare the living daylights out of everybody. It's just a fantastic movie.

BH:  Also, you had a recurring role in Seinfeld [as the gay thug, Bob, he appeared in several classic episodes including The Soup Nazi]. Do you still get recognized from that?

YV:  Recognized more than anything. I've done a lot of pretty big films, but the power of that show is enormous. It's shown all over the world.

The LAByrinth Theater Company's The Last Days of Judas Iscariot continues at the Public Theater's Martinson Hall through April 3. Visit Telecharge.com for ticket information. For more information on LAByrinth, visit their website at www.labtheater.org.


Photo: Carol Rosegg




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