In Zen calligraphy, the zenith is becoming one with the characters. The artist must free herself from outside disturbances. Otherwise discord will be revealed in the fluidity of the brush strokes.

The dualities of Zen principles are hard to grasp. How can one be expressionistic and yet not? How can one be masterful in creating when confined to a standardized set of procedures?

The characters in Velina Hasu Houston’s new play, Calligraphy, are confined. Their cultural expectations, their cities, and their family history constrain them. The effects of aging also take its toll on two sisters. Their daughters are ingrained with the notion of filial piety, bound to take care of their mothers.

Each desperately attempts to find variants of living, in lives where the path has already been laid out. The eldest sister chooses to revel in her long-held bitterness. Her daughter opts for freedom and abandons her mother. Her cousin resigns herself to living everyone else’s life but her own. Her mother agonizingly grasps onto her memories as her mind melts away.

Houston’s genre is the play. The format can be unforgiving when one strays too far beyond the lines. But she is a master at finding subtlety and power in her brush strokes. She blends humor and social commentary with intense emotional desperation. Her work balances her poetic style with crisp one-liners. Calligraphy packs so much into a play format. Yet the fluidity is never compromised.

The presentation I describe was a reading at the Los Angeles Theatre Center’s Playwright’s Festival. Hopefully the full production in November will continue to be helmed by Jon Rivera. He enhanced the nuances of Houston’s play and lifted indelible unspoken moments in the script. He was ably supported by a strong group of actors, most notably Emily Kuroda and Natsuko Ohama.

There were a few times in the play where Houston chose language instead of plot. I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing. She certainly is at one with her characters. Their journey hit close to home — Tokyo or Los Angeles, it’s not far to relate. Life is like calligraphy. Once you’ve brushed the stroke, you can never go back. But Houston shows us in her depth of writing that we are able to find subtle variants no matter what path we are on.

Photo courtesy of Pacific Rim PR.

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