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By Heart 

Amy Tan's story comes to life onstage, with bonesetters, coffin constructors, and dragon dust

Wednesday, Jul 14 2004
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Long before e-mail, Gmail, or faxing, there was the ink stick. A Chinese invention used for calligraphy, the stick is admittedly a less-than-immediate implement of communication. Simply a block of ink (often carved and decorated), it is first wet and then rubbed against a stone to make a nice, big pool of liquid. The author dips the calligraphy pen into the fresh ink and writes away. The process is obviously more time consuming than punching out a load of nonsense on the keyboard and IMing it into a virtual void, but that's the idea: While you rub the ink stick against the stone, you take the time to think about what to write.

The main character in Amy Tan's Immortal Heart, a short story being staged by local theater company Word for Word, comes from a long line of ink stick makers, who pass down calligraphied pages to tell tales of their pasts. Tan's piece also involves bonesetters, coffin constructors, and a fair dose of dragon dust. But it's not set in some dreamscape of goblins and fairies; it takes place in a very real China during the early 1900s, at the time when Peking Man -- the oldest skeleton in the world at that point -- is first discovered. Despite the setting, it's essentially the coming-of-age account of a young girl who finally learns about her mother's strange and horrific past.

"It's a beautiful, haunting story," says Word for Word Co-Artistic Director JoAnne Winter in a recent phone interview. "It's full of Chinese culture and magic and superstition. It's a perfect story to theatricalize."

The show is a departure for Word for Word: The company didn't use its usual actors, since the material required an all-Asian cast. But the production is true to the troupe's unique format, in that every word in the story, narration and tags ("he said," "she said") included, is gloriously enacted onstage.

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Karen Macklin

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