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Theater Review

'Ikebana' Arranges Itself in Metaphors


Having written nearly two dozen plays, Velina Hasu Houston remains best-known for what she refers to as her "signature" play, "Tea" (1985). In it, the Japanese wives of U.S. servicemen, stationed in Junction City, Kan., during the Vietnam War, use the traditional tea-taking ceremony as a means of affirmation, of connecting to their old lives and their better, truer selves.

The tea ceremony is about order and balance and aesthetic beauty. Houston's newest work, "Ikebana," now at the Pasadena Playhouse, uses a different tradition and a different metaphor--that of Japanese floral arrangement--for similar dramatic purposes.

Sometimes, though, a metaphor can get the best of a writer; it can, in effect, do too much work. That's the case with the disappointingly stilted "Ikebana," subtitled "Living Flowers," now in its world premiere edition. Houston's drama is all metaphor, and Houston sticks to it, doggedly, like a presidential candidate determined to stay "on message."

Houston locates her tale in 1957 Tokyo. Hanako (Lina Patel), of mixed ancestry, has come to the home of Dr. Itamura (Dana Lee) to serve as maid. "I expected someone more . . . matronly," says Itamura's daughter, Ayame (June Angela), suspiciously. Why has Itamura sent for this alluring young woman?

With improbable swiftness, daughter and maid bridge their differences and become fast friends. Itamura invites two young doctors--prospective husbands for his tradition-bound daughter--to his home. Though he keeps it a secret, Kitayama (Francisco Viana) already knows, and loves, the independent-minded Hanako. The other young medic, Nakamura (Gedde Watanabe), meantime takes a fancy to the doctor's daughter, though the young man's relative poverty doesn't make him an attractive prospect in the doctor's eyes.

In Hanako, playwright Houston revises a well-worn archetype: The "exotic" outsider who disrupts and enchants, through sheer moral superiority to the close-minded traditionalists. To this character the practice of ikebana is too "rigid," too much a symbol of hidebound Japan. "Times have changed," she says. Yet Hanako remains obligated, cruelly, to the doctor, for reasons revealed in Act 2.

Houston's key confrontations ring false. Her characters don't seem remotely 1950s in any sense or sensibility; the writing smacks of a modern-day perspective, more or less thrown onto the play. "Sometimes it seems I don't fit into anybody's design," Hanako the authorial stand-in says at one point, "and then I have to ask myself if I really want to anyway. After all, I'm something new. Maybe it's time to celebrate that."

Bland self-empowerment isn't helped by the characters' tendency to hit every nail right on the head, explaining every dilemma, every second. Dr. Kitayama: "One good thing about the war is that it's freed us up to make new choices, but I'm still squirming under my father's knuckles." Houston has enough theatrical instincts to realize the advantage of mixing her levels of reality; the flights into the surreal at least take us away from the writing's clunkiness. Yet even here, the poetry strains: "It's hard to be art. To bear the expectation of beauty. The delusions of men and their myth-making demand so much of mere flowers."

Director Shirley Jo Finney's ensemble lays into all this pretty heavily; there's nary an offhand or cloaked intention. Visually, it's a production of high polish: Scenic designer Andrei Both's abstracted Japanese garden, with British influences, is dominated by a pine tree and a footbridge evocatively lighted by Victor En Yu Tan. Finney and her designers achieve some lovely images, with cherry blossoms falling and a stylized sunset casting an ambiguous glow.

The best imagery, in fact, manages to capture much of what Houston's after--but glancingly. "Ikebana" hits its themes, its confrontations and its central metaphor with a heavy hand. The characters--not to mention the themes of racism, sexism, tradition and freedom--simply need more breathing room.


* "Ikebana (Living Flowers)," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 22. $15-$42.50. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

June Angela: Ayame

Dana Lee: Itamura

Lina Patel: Hanako

Francisco Viana: Kitayama

Gedde Watanabe: Nakamura

Written by Velina Hasu Houston. Directed by Shirley Jo Finney. Scenic design by Andrei Both. Costumes by Lydia Tanji. Lighting by Victor En Yu Tan. Sound and original music by Mitch Greenhill. Production stage manager Ed De Shae.

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