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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'Uncle Vanya'
Niall Buggy is a riveting, frustrated Vanya in Brian Friel's version of "Uncle Vanya." (Photo: Tom Lawlor)
Contents: August 6, 1999:
(1) Brian Friel's "Uncle Vanya"
(2) Brian Friel's "Aristocrats"
(3) Brian Friel's "The Freedom of the City"
(4)"The Peony Pavilion" by Tang Xianzu
(5) Robert Wilson's "The Days Before, Death, Destruction & Detroit III"

This year's Lincoln Center Festival featured three works by Irish playwright Brian Friel who says a lot about class politics and the decay of the upper strata. His translation of "Uncle Vanya" and the play "Aristocrats," performed by the Gate Theatre, are both about landed gentry who've fallen on hard times and have been left behind by an advancing society. They are also about men who dominate and overwhelm and intimidate the others in their households. In each case, it's men outside the family who seem most sensible, though in the end they seem also drawn by the powerful pull of the gentry's house or land. The sense of aristocratic decay is mirrored in Friel's other work, "The Freedom of the City," performed by the Abbey Theatre. Here the upper class are the Irish collaborators with British political power, and the working class civil rights marchers pointedly joke about their high-born accoutrements. Two other Festival productions, "The Peony Pavilion" and "The Days Before, Death, Destruction & Detroit III," are grand tableaux. The first is a brilliant, historic tour de force, which is honest and direct and overwhelms with its artistry. The second is an attempt to be profound which, though often charming, disappoints with its pretensions.

"Uncle Vanya"
by Anton Chekhov as rendered by Brian Friel from a literal translation by Una Ni Dhubhghaill, directed by Ben Barnes
Produced by The Gate Theatre at Lincoln Center
LaGuardia Drama Theater, Amsterdam Avenue at 65 Street
Opened July 7, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar July 17, 1999
What a perfect idea for Brian Friel to rework Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" into a subtle suggestion that the decaying Russian aristocracy of the late 19th century had something in common with their class colleagues in rural Ireland. The place names are the same, the characters talk about Petersburg and Kharkov, but there's no Russian spirit at all in this production by the Gate Theatre of Dublin. There's no sense of overriding angst at impending doom from relentless political forces one often sees in this play. Instead, there's rather a sense of ennui and inertia, and the accents that distinguish the servants from the upper class are the ones that divide Irish society.

Vanya (Niall Buggy) is a powerful, riveting figure who explodes in frustration at the life he has uselessly devoted to the ungrateful Serebryakov (T.P. McKenna), husband of his late sister. He and Sonya (Donna Dent), Serebyrakov's daughter, have spent years working the family estate, living in penury and sending a lion's share to the professor, who they revere as a great intellectual.

Now Serebryakov has retired and come back from the city with a new young wife, Elena (Susannah Harker). She rouses the lust and fantasies of Vanya and also of Astrov (John Kavanagh), a doctor and environmentalist, who see her as their last hope to escape their lives' boredom. Sonya, hopelessly in love with the doctor, sees him as her way out of loneliness. Maria (Ann Rowan) the mother of Serebryakov's first wife, is a plucky woman and a suffragist who is patronized by her former son-in-law. Elena, initially taken with the professor's brilliance, now finds the self-centered and ill older man an unsympathetic husband. And he is discouraged by his illness. It's not a very happy entourage.

Against their personal dissatisfactions, there's a liberal political message critical of the status quo. Elena says, "Woods, wildlife, women; use them, abuse them, discard them." The doctor talks about "the filthy hovels of the noble Russian peasant and the educated people as uncivilized in their own way and not all that clean."

Director Ben Barnes creates a sense of their isolation on the expansive stage, a large parquet patio edged with patches of wheat field. The actors typically huddle together rather than using the whole the stage, giving one a feeling that they are bereft of much human contact.

Their anguish and demand for a life comes together in Buggy's brilliant recital of Vanya's eloquent, doomed insistence that Elena return his love and then his fury at the recognition that he's ruined his life giving money to a pompous intellectual charlatan. When he declares, "I am not a nonentity, oh no!" you sense the depths of his yearning, distress, and self-contempt. Overwrought with passion, he makes a fool of himself, then sinks back to his old shell of dry irony. He seems in spirit much older than his 47 years.

The only one who seems totally at peace with his fate is shown as a bit of a fool. Director Barnes turns the former landowner Telegin (Eamon Morrissey) into a comic guitar-playing character who carries a red bandana to wipe away the sweat he says made his wife leave him.

Dent is a charming Sonya, jumping and giggling like a teenager in first love. Harker exudes boredom as the languid Elena, who at 27 seems to have lost any spark of imagination she ever had. Representing the useless strata, she is the typical self-absorbed aristocratic lady. And Kavanagh makes Astrov embody the real hope of the country with his commitment to serving the poor and his dedication to preserving the forests.

These are universal and still current themes, and by stripping the play of its Russian character, Friel makes that more evident.

by Brian Friel, directed by Ben Barnes
Produced by The Gate Theatre at Lincoln Center
LaGuardia Drama Theater, Amsterdam Avenue at 65 Street
Opened July 21, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar July 24, 1999
There's a sense of decay in "Aristocrats" that is immediately apparent in the shabby living room of the west Ireland country mansion, with its torn leather chair and love seat and shelves of dusty books piled in the corner. It's the decay of an aristocratic family as much as the house they inhabit, set against the energy of several working class men from the town. The irony is that those men revere the old villa and what it stood for more than the children of the patriarch who hangs on to life, it would seem, only to rant and rail at his sons and daughters for their failings.

Brian Friel's play is a metaphor for an Ireland which he sees poised between a decadent past and a more vibrant future but which is still somehow in thrall to the myths of that past. Ben Barnes has directed it with a combination of irony, sadness and sympathy for all concerned.

The family's progenitors were justices, the father was a judges, and the son is a failed lawyer. Each generation fell lower till the family's deterioration is manifest in Casimir (Mark Lambert), who works part-time in a sausage factory in Germany. He says his wife is a cashier in a bowling alley, but one begins to doubt she even exists.

His sister Alice (Donna Dent) lives in London with working-class Eamon (Frank McCusker), drinks too much, and seems bereft of purpose. Oddly, it's the pull of the aristocratic myth that made Eamon marry the erratic Alice -- after her sister Judith (Catherine Byrne) turned him down.

Alice, Eamon, and Casimir have returned to the imagined village of Ballybeg in the county of Donegal for the wedding of the fourth sibling, Claire (Alison McKenna), a woman in her 20's. She, in desperation, is marrying a man of 55 with four children and an intrusive housekeeper. Casimir makes much of the Chopin pieces Claire plays -- and of the fact that their father refused to let her take a music scholarship, a suggestion that the promise of great talent was snuffed out.

The only one of them who seems anchored is Judith, who was in the civil rights movement's battle of Bogside (and had a baby by a Dutch reporter) while the others in the family ignored the nationalist cause. She is now caring for their near senile father.

They all interact on the lawn in front of the house where a tennis net hangs desultorily from one post, a relic of the more affluent past. From upstairs, Father (Peter Dix) yells, his voice carried by a speaker set up in the living room, as if to show the children that they can never escape him.

The furnishings, in an odd way, become a metaphor both for the family's dissolution and illusions. Tom Hoffnung (William Roberts) a Chicago professor whose name means hope, is on hand to research "the cultural and political modes of upper-class rural society in Ireland since Catholic emancipation and its affects on the local peasantry." Trying mightily to impress him, Casimir points out the shabby cushions and footstools, placing them at the center of invented historical minutiae such as, "This is where Gerard Manley Hopkins used to sit," to tie the family to a cultural life it never had. The answer to Hoffnung's question is that the upper class has made the peasantry envious of its mystical grandeur and tradition even as it sees its fraudulence and decline.

The Gate Theatre cast is excellent, led by Lambert as an effective high-pitched Casimir, the kind of pretentious person who says "Mother" instead of "my mother," when he's talking to other people. To single out several others, Dent is persuasive as the depressed Alice and McCuster is equally good as her perplexed husband.

"The Freedom of the City"
by Brian Friel, directed by Conall Morrison
Produced by The Abbey Theatre at Lincoln Center
John Jay College Theater, 10th Avenue at 59th Street
Opened July 8, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar July 18, 1999
There's passion behind Brian Friel's play "The Freedom of the City," which tells the story of three Irish civil rights marchers gunned down by British troops in Northern Ireland in 1970. The imagined characters represent 13 people who died on "Bloody Sunday" in 1972 in a massacre that helped etch the bitterness that still scars the community. Friel makes a powerful political argument, backed up by Conall Morrison's stunningly realistic direction. Attack troops race through teargas. Reconnaissance is carried out by a deafening helicopter. The opening scene shows three dead bodies set against a news photographer's click-shot photo montage.

In a flashback, three unarmed marchers, beset by billy-swinging soldiers, have taken refuge behind a fortuitously unlocked door. They are incredulous when they find themselves in the elegant office of the mayor in the city's Guildhall, a place of gorgeous oak furniture and stained glass windows. It's the redoubt of the Protestants; gerrymandering has kept the Catholic majority from power. Outside, a reporter will intone, "Fifty armed gunmen have taken possession of the Guildhall!" The IRA militants are quick to take credit for the purported action, and at a Bogside pub, they sing a rousing new commemorative song.

Morrison has fashioned an often gripping multi-media event, with real news footage intercut with scenes of the play, so that video of civil rights marchers segues into the three activists taking refuge. The scenes inside the Guildhall are intercut with cameos of soldiers, police, judge, priest, and newscaster.

The interactions between a 43-year-old working class housewife and two young men are poignant and comic and designed to establish their innocence and humanity before the brutality and moral corruption of the army, police and political powers that brand them "terrorists." Lilly Doherty (Sorcha Cusack) works as a cleaner and lives with her husband and eleven children in two rooms with no running water. A garrulous lady who sometimes talks nonsense but also has great warmth, Lilly treats the boys like her sons.

The youths are jobless. Skinner, really Adrian Casimir Fitzgerald (Michael Colgan), is the realist with a sense of fantasy and play. He knows what's going on, and his whimsical parading around with the mayor's plumed hat is a "tomorrow we die" bravado. As he and Lilly get a little tipsy on the mayor's liquor, he remarks in an after-death advice to the nationalist movement, "How seriously they took us and how unpardonably casual we were about them." And, in flippant style with serious intent, "If you're going to decide to take them on, you'd better mend your ways."

Michael Hegarty (Gerard Crossan) is the play-by-the-book guy, uneasy about disturbing the objects in the office. He insists he has marched in a disciplined way, that the occupation of the office is not his idea of dignified peaceful protest. He recites that in a peaceful demonstration, "they can only ask for your name, that's the law. You give them no cheek, they'll give you no trouble." But Skinner knows that for their antagonists, being proper doesn't matter.

You get the sense Friel is attempting to touch every base in his excoriation of the murderous deceit he exposes and its connection to the political power of the Unionists. Friel was once a teacher, and a stand-in American sociologist (Bosco Hogan) in jeans and green corduroy jacket periodically ambles on stage to explain the broader significance and expound on the culture of poverty.

He says, "The young can't take advantage of increased opportunities that may occur in their lifetime. They are provincial; they don't have a sense of history. When they understand their connection to the poor elsewhere, they break out. Any movement that promotes solidarity smashes the rigid caste that incases their minds and bodies."

At another interval, he says, "The psychological condition, bad housing, and malnutrition make people feel marginal, inferior. They endure with resignation. The dominant class explains the lower class status of the poor as the result of their inadequacy." Though the professor slows the dramatic action and doesn't work theatrically, he's quite interesting intellectually. The battle with British troops is a battle of the poor against the rich.

To emphasize the town council's disdain for the concerns of the Catholic poor, Skinner reads its meeting agenda -- a flower show, painting a building, consideration of a trip to India -- frivolous matters at the time of 14-percent unemployment. The sociologist interjects, "All over the world, the gulf between the rich and poor widens. In Latin America, one percent owns 72 percent of the land. In the United States, 20 percent live in extreme poverty."

Intercut with these scenes are the cold legal inquiry by the fatuous judge, comments by a pretentious politician, and a report by a pompous TV reporter who gushes, in a parody of American as well as Irish newscasters, "The clouds can contain themselves no longer and the rain is spilling down on people standing in the brown ghetto streets." In contrast, and even as they prepare to die, the three show a sense of dignity and strength in their mundane folding up of robes, putting back bottles, straightening up the office.

The point is made that they were good folks, poor folks, blasted by a reprehensible overweening power. Much of the play is powerful. At a certain point, however, substance gets overwhelmed by form, and it seems over-dramatized, obvious, disjointed and even begins to drag. That may be one reason it closed after a week on Broadway in 1974. A man behind me commented that the play was "inefficient." There is so much in it that is important, that you wish it had been cut and tightened and that Friel been more subtle. But subtlety often is lost in conflicts such as this one.

"The Peony Pavilion"
by Tang Xianzu, directed by Chen Shizheng
Produced by the Lincoln Center Festival and Festival d'Automne à Paris
LaGuardia Concert Hall, Amsterdam Avenue at 65 Street
Opened July 7, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar July 25, 1999
"The Peony Pavilion" is a charming, captivating, elegant masterpiece of Chinese opera, a Ming Dynasty entertainment written in 1598 that is a combination of commedia dell'arte, opera buffa, and picaresque adventure. No one knows what early performances were like, though director Chen Shizheng discovered the 1792 score. He has tried to make it authentic based on what known about opera and music of the time, but it is his own interpretation.

Chen has made the brilliant decision to recreate the sense of the locations where opera was performed, not in theaters, but in spaces where people gathered for the activities of their lives -- marketplaces, gardens and temples. He has turned the stage into a Chinese garden with a pond filled with real quacking ducks, fish, water lilies and, at the sides of two platforms that bank the scene, hanging cages of singing parakeets. At the center of Huang Hai Wei's set is a Ming Dynasty pavilion with a wood canopy roof, its intricate carvings by artisans in Suzhou, designed to copy the classic Chinese opera stage. Sometimes a hand-painted silk backdrop, inspired by works from the Song Dynasy, creates a room. Behind it, a flat is painted with bluish mountains and a sea.

The opera is comprised of six parts with 55 scenes that take 19 hours. Twenty actors play more than 160 roles of masters and servants, bandits and scholars, government officials, soldiers and nuns. The general story is that 16-year-old Du Liniang (Beautiful Du) dreams of a lover, wakes, and dies of despair at not having him. Three years later, Liu Mengmei, the dream lover she has never met, is brought to the garden after being rescued from a stream and falls in love with the self-portrait Du painted to leave a record of her beauty to the world. Her ghost visits him at night, they become lovers, and she persuades him to dig her up so she can be resurrected. There's a subplot relating to a military threat to the Song Dynasty, of which Du's father Du Bao is a provincial prefect.

I saw Episode Five, a collection of lively vignettes that includes Liu Mengmei's servant Camel Guo going off to search for him, the young scholar arriving at the capital to take a civil service exam, and Madam Du, concerned that she and her husband have no heirs, proposing that he take a second wife.

It gets exciting when the bandit Li Quan surrounds the city of Huaian and battles with Du Bao. Li Quan captures Du's old tutor, and lies that they have killed Madam Du and her adopted daughter, Spring Fragrance. Du Bao is devastated when the tutor reports this, but he refuses to give up the battle against the invaders, instead writing Dame Li to bribe her into changing sides. A Jin general arrives at Li Quan's camp, drinks wine, and drunkenly propositions Dame Li (who is played by a man). In the last scene, Du Liniang and her servant, staying at an inn waiting for Liu, have a reunion with Madam Du and Spring Fragrance, who stop there by chance.

The music is performed by twelve musicians who play wind and string instruments while siting on a wood platform to the side of the pavilion. The singing -- in Chinese with English supertitles-- is often in very high registers, falsetto for the men, almost whining for the women. The actors move in slow dance-like motions. There's also exhilarating acrobatic and folk dancing, and puppetry.

A lot of comedy and broad slapstick is performed by wonderfully droll stock characters. Scabby Turtle (Luo Wen Shuai) is a young, not altogether scrupulous fellow who gets by on his wits. The old, loyal servant Camel Guo (Liu Ming) is a befuddled gentleman who has a long, white, cotton-wool beard and carries a forked walking stick. Two frightened sentries remind one of the comical duos in Shakespeare.

There's broad political commentary about the state of the civil service and governance. Miao (Liu Ming) the examiner, who wears a patently fake beard and ornate headdress and robe, sings "what a bunch of blockheads" about the exam candidates. Liu Memgmei (Wen Yu Hang) shams tears and carries on to get admitted to take the test, which is "Determine our policy toward Tartars -- appeasement, defense or attack?" The audience laughs when when Madame Du (Song Yang) asks, "What now, my lord, still at war even at your age?" The nationalistic Du Liniang (Qian Yi) sings, "What good is heaven if it cannot distinguish the Chinese from the Tartars?"

Military machismo comes in for spoofing, too. Dame Li (Yu Qing Wang), the bandit leader, gorgeously and ornately attired, with an outlandish peacock feather headdress, is smarter than her husband Li, the bandit Prince Errant of Jin (Liu Qing Chun), and effectively heads the female army. The troops march to crashing cymbals and engage the foe with balletic turning and swirling of swords. There's a wonderfully comic scene as the women show their prowess and the male adversaries can't match them. A macho male soldier screeches and makes muscles, but the martial lady, clad in pink, doesn't budge and soon disposes of the entire troop.

There's humor which seems old and some that seems quite new. A character who is prostrate starts snoring loudly. Madame Du says apologetically to her daughter, "Child, your father was against a great big funeral."

Cheng Shu Yi's stunning costumes -- more than 550 hand-embroidered silk outfits in bright reds, blues, yellows-- and headdresses with beads and glitter are an artistic delight. Many have long white sleeves that hang a few feet below the hands. (The sleeves, called shuixiu, or "water sleeves," have been part of Chinese dress since pre-Han times. They are almost as important to Chinese opera as toe shoes are to ballet; singers use extra-long versions with which they make flicks and other motions that have particular meanings. An opera performer has to be skilled to maneuver the sleeves gracefully.) The trappings and props are also clever and stylized. A messenger in a red cape rides off on a feathery stick that evokes the tail of a horse.

This production, originally by the Shanghai Kunju Opera, was to have opened in New York a year ago, but the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Culture decided at the last minute that Chen's production was "pornographic, feudal and superstitious" and unfit for export. It forbade Chinese performers to leave the country to participate. The complaints were apparently fueled by Episode Two in which Sister Stone vividly describes the wedding night disaster caused by her "rock-hard hymen." The superstitious charge may have been provoked by the presentation of ancient Chinese folk rituals, such as the burning of effigies, at Du Liniang's death and funeral. And the Bureau of Culture charged that the production was not faithful to Kunqu style, the most important form of Chinese opera, which it is committed to protect.

However, Lincoln Center and its French co-producer, Festival Paris d'Automne, owned the sets, costumes and props, and they recreated the cast with some of the Chinese performers, including lead singer Qian (Du Liniang) and flutist and orchestra leader Zhou Ming, and hired others from America. "The Peony Pavilion' is the best representation of classic Chinese opera most westerners will ever see.

"The Days Before, Death, Destruction & Detroit III"
conceived and directed by Robert Wilson
produced by Lincoln Center Festival 99
New York State Theater, Broadway & 64 Street
Opened July 7, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar July 9, 1999
Robert Wilson's play "The Days Before, Death, Destruction & Detroit III" is a little like a surrealist painting. You see odd, evocative images and then when you see the title, you say, 'oh yes,' or maybe you still don't get what the painter was trying to say. So maybe you forget about the meaning and just try to appreciate the artistry and physical beauty of the piece.

There's a lot of "meaning" in Wilson's play, but if you try to take it seriously, you could drown in its pretentiousness. The passages from Umberto Eco's novel "The Island of the Day Before," about an Italian shipwrecked in the 17th century, may be elegant if they are read carefully and mused over, but they are tedious and difficult to absorb while you're also looking at constantly changing tableaux.

For the record, the director's note says that the play "explores the process of destruction and reconstruction, drawing from apocalyptic history, thought and imagination. Shifting between ancient and modern times, visions of the end of the world in the second millennium reflect those which appear in the first millennium. A mediation structure of revelations is interwoven through forms of narrative, philosophy, and memory."

However, productions have to rise and fall on their own merits, not playbill explanations. About midway though, I stopped listening to the text and just tried to appreciate the vision as ballet and spectacle and pageant. There is ritualized, Kabuki-style motion choreographed by Suzushi Hanayagi and projected film by Christopher Kondek.

The forms and dancers are elegant, beginning with the masked Rooster and Owl. (The Rooster is purportedly a prophet who sees the Apocalypse in visions and predicts how the world will end. The Owl doubts it will happen.) Dadon Dawadolma, a Tibetan singer bathed in blue, chants in magnetic, pipe-like bursts.

In "Twilight," a blue-garbed angel with long, blue fingernails declares, "Solomon said cut the baby in two." Blood flows from a rod. There is man with a long, white beard (a rabbi) and an Oriental clapping a wood block in traditional Japanese style. Fiona Shaw, the main reader of Eco's novel, describes the effects of a bomb -- skin pulls away from bodies. (Other texts are recited by Isabella Rossellini, Tony Randall and Jeremy Geidt.) Then, black headless figures, who seem like rocks, rise. The man in blue declares, "Solomon said cut the earth in two."

Theological arguments about infinity versus God are voiced in "Rooster," while the eponymous fowl reads and tears pieces off a long paper scroll. Dancers bunch up and crush the papers, and on a back screen, a man throws a tantrum like an infant. A woman with curly red hair sticks out her tongue and walks across the stage with a parakeet on her shoulder. You're beginning to think this is nonsense.

In "Maelstrom," three figures, one roly poly, one very tall, the last mid-sized, walk around while a woman in a gold gown lies on the ground doing balletic poses. On a back screen, ocean waves are displayed. The amusing "Old Woman" features the red-headed lady talking in rapid German while on a screen, in a scene that evokes the 1940's, another woman listens to the radio. After a while, the redhead pulls a knife across her forehead and draws blood.

"Execution" has a recognizable stylized turn-of-the-century royal family in the sort of pose that was favored then by portrait artists. Men in gray pants and masks, with poles that seem to pierce their chests, do a slow dance. Above are suspended projections of the Romanovs.

In a witty commentary on the outer-directed society, the raconteur tells of islanders who, to get a sense of their own existence, had to look in water to see themselves or else to be "narrated." (Is that like getting a mention in the columns?) Fortunately, there was a machine with many times 700 million stories, enough to give lives to generations. A woman throws up her arms and grimaces like Eduard Munch's "Scream."

I also liked "The Box" (Pandora's) featuring the mythical lady, a blacksmith, and a pit filled with green gamblers playing cards. Instead of calling out king, queen, jack, they shout words such as "submissive," and "silence." Meanwhile, on the screens are images of Nazis striking people on a forced march.

Ninety-year-old Turkish opera singer Semiha Berksoy, in a satire of German opera, transits the stage on a moving red velvet sofa as she bellows out Isolde's "Liebestod."

Ships horns warn of "A Flood." Waves suds on the screen, and two figures in overcoats appear. The truly surrealist "Family" includes a headless figure, a man in a woman's dress, a hanging cloud, and a waddling duck. The double-talking redhead reappears, this time slowing down so that she sounds like a tape at wrong speed.

I couldn't figure out the "Chess Game," which seems to be waged between bird armies. A backdrop film shows a man breaking rocks.

"Falling Angels" is marked by angels chirping "arch arch arch choo." Cute. And horses on the screen. Then comes the "Owl Prophecy" -- remember, the owl doesn't think the Apocalypse is coming -- portrayed by the woman in a white mask. A figure on a swing lifts up to the sky.

Finally, the "Ship." A very small old man walks laughing, barefoot around the deck, his shoes set carefully nearby. The body with no head is back. The text is about death.

All of this is accomplished to composer Ryuichi Sakamoto's whining violins and other music with a sci fi feel, from 1970's synthesizer to New Age. Though the visions are often striking, the text is diversionary rather than complimentary, and the movements are not defined or interesting enough to be exciting as dance. "The Days Before" is sometimes engaging in a quirky sort of way as long as you don't take its pretensions too seriously. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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