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STAGE WEEK

'Mother Tongue': A Cultural Transition

February 14, 1988|JANICE ARKATOV

What happens when people leave one culture for another?

That's the question Paul Stephen Lim poses in "Mother Tongue," a semi-autobiographical treatise on emigration, opening Thursday at East West Players. "The play is most obviously based on my mother's history, the history of my family," said the playwright. "My mother was born in China and moved, as a child bride of 14, to the Philippines. I came here (20 years ago) when I was 24, so the United States feels very much like home."

Yet Lim also feels the traditional perception of "overseas Chinese" as one of societal rootlessness.

"When people leave one culture for another, they give up a language--which carries with it ethical and moral values. I don't make judgments; it's just a dilemma. . . . This is the first time I've written about myself. I thought it would be difficult, but it wasn't. Although finding my mother's voice was hard. When I started writing this play three years ago, I asked her to put together tapes recalling names, dates--and it was very painful for her. She called me cruel."

As he did with his earlier "Flesh, Flash and Frank Harris," Lim, who is on the writing faculty at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, has adopted the device of having one character played by multiple actors. Here the seven actors double and triple in many parts--except for the narrator and the two women who play the mother at ages 17 and 61. "The 17-year-old has no knowledge of what happens after she's 17," Lim said, "while the older one has the complete history at her disposal."

Paul Hough ("Berlin to Broadway"), a longtime friend, directs.

Language always figures prominently in the productions at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts--the plays are performed on alternate nights in English and Spanish. Opening Wednesday is Emilio Carballido's "Rosa de Dos Aromas" (which has played for three years in Mexico), directed by Margarita Galban and starring Irene de Bari and Maria Rubel.

"It's about two totally different women--one is a sophisticated pseudo-intellectual, the other is a very sexy beautician--who meet, start talking and find out they're waiting for the same man," said De Bari, who originated her role last year in New York with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre. "I'm the wife; she's the mistress. We both have children by him. Now we need to get him out of jail. And of course we start out hating each other, furious. . . .

"It's a comedy, a romp. But if you choose to dig deeper, there's a lot there. I think what Carballido has presented are two stereotypes: women who don't seem to have much subtext, and yet they mesh, blend--and you find that friendship is possible between two different women, that the man is no longer the focus, that they can create a family in the space the man has vacated. Perhaps by American standards, that's not revolutionary, but from a Latin point of view, to free females from male dominance is very exciting."

Also exciting--and challenging--is the notion of playing the role in two languages.

"I've done a lot of bilingual work in the past," said De Bari, who, with co-star Rubel, is an alumnus of "Tamara." "Which do I prefer? Well, it depends on the author. For modern-day writers, I think English works better; it's more colloquial. Spanish is too lyrical, too bombastic. It's different with the classics. When you translate those into English you lose the poetry of language. But for contemporary work, English is definitely easier."

Jo Anne Dearing's one-woman "Comics Are People Too" opens Wednesday at the Backlot Theatre. "It's about what it's like to become a comic, how they do it," said Dearing, who, accompanied by music and video, will play eight characters--from cab driver to flight attendant and self-help teacher.

"It's a real light story, not depressing at all. I'm tired of always seeing the crying clown. That's not what it was like for me."

CRITICAL CROSSFIRE: Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind" recently opened at the Taper under the direction of Robert Woodruff ("Belly of the Beast"), starring Rae Allen, John Diehl, James Gammon, Holly Hunter, Amy Madigan, Louise Latham and Cyril O'Reilly.

Said Dan Sullivan in The Times: "Unlike life--which as one of Shepard's characters observes, gets worse and worse as you go along--'Lie' saves its best stuff for the last act."

From the Herald-Examiner's Richard Stayton: " 'Lie' unravels like 'The Greatest Hits of Sam Shepard.' We have the feuding 'True West' brothers. We meet again the eccentric parents from 'Curse of the Starving Class' and 'Buried Child.' There's an appearance by the brain-damaged victims of 'Inacoma' and 'The War in Heaven.' "

Tom Jacobs, in the Daily News, dubbed Hunter "remarkable" in "an uneven work, sporadically brilliant, bitingly funny, but maddeningly unfocused and disturbingly redundant. Shepard's language is unimpressive here, and his trademark vivid imagery has been muted into near banality."

In the Orange County Register, Thomas O'Connor found the Taper performances "nearly equal in their magic" and "Lie" a "remarkably great play, a spinning mass of verbal and visual images that haunt and echo, though the linear structure makes this play Shepard's easiest to follow."

Said Daily Variety's Amy Dawes, "Familiar Shepard elements surface here: people running down highways in the dark; people reduced to an animal state, tied to stoves; family members who don't recognize each other. But while miraculous goods have been woven from this in the past, the fabric here is strained. . . ."

Last, from Ed Kaufman in the Hollywood Reporter: "The physical production is sparse, dank and cold. Douglas Stein's set is trileveled and effective, while Paulie Jenkins' lighting and Nicole Morin's costumes make it Shepard country all the way."

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