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Military Mayhem: Pan Asian Rep’s ‘Incident at Hidden Temple’

January 30th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto in 'Incident at Hidden Temple.' (Photo: John Quincy  via The Broadway Blog.)

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto in ‘Incident at Hidden Temple.’ (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple, a world premiere at the Clurman, kicks off the 40th season of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, an accomplishment for which company founder and artistic producing director Tisa Chang deserves the warmest commendation. It’s too bad, however, that Pan Asian’s newest production couldn’t be a stronger one to honor her achievement. On the other hand, she has, through her politically involved father, a personal relationship to one of the play’s central figures, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.

This is Chua’s second play for Pan Asian, and, like his 2015 Film Chinois, takes us to China in the 1940s, when competing ideologies created an atmosphere of danger and distrust. Film Chinois was set in 1947 Beijing, two years after World War II, while Incident at Hidden Temple occurs in China in 1943, during the war, with American forces supporting the Chinese.

Jonathan Miles & Dinh James Doan in 'Incident at Hidden Temple.' (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

Jonathan Miles & Dinh James Doan in ‘Incident at Hidden Temple.’ (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

There are actually two Chinas involved, however, one led by Chiang’s Nationalists, the other by Mao Zedong’s communist forces. The situation creates major strategic tensions for the Americans, led by Gen. Joseph Stilwell, not seen, whose positions are represented by his civilian aide, McAllister (Nick Jordan). The real-life feud that existed between Stilwell and Gen. Claire Chennault, head of the Flying Tigers fighter squadrons, is altered by replacing Chennault with the fictional Gen. Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), who, like Chennault, is friendly with the generalissimo (Dinh James Doan).

Chua, however, focuses only intermittently on the complex military-historical issues, the outcome of which established the foundation of U.S.-China relations into the 1970s. Instead, he diffuses his treatment by introducing various melodramatic mysteries. The Stilwell-Van Holt friction, concerning major decisions about building a base for attacks on Japan, becomes just another piece of the mosaic on which other elements are played out as the dramatist grapples with issues of truth.

Thus we get an investigation into the murder of an American soldier (Nick Jordan) ; the disappearance of a 16-year-old Chinese girl, Lucy Chao (Briana Sakamoto), while traveling by train with her older sister, Ava (Ying Ying Li), a journalism student; a Chinese-American pilot named Walter Hu (Tim Liu) who appears to be passing himself off as yet another pilot; the hint of a romance between the married Van Holt and Ava; a wise, old, blind man (Dinh James Doan), who prattles in mystical terms about a certain “Hidden Temple”; an unintended pregnancy; and, for good measure, a subplot involving sacred artifacts, Ernest Hemingway, and two people connected to him that Chua suggests were real but can’t be found anywhere on the Internet.

Ying Ying Li and Walter Hu in 'Incident at Hidden Temple.' (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

Ying Ying Li and Walter Hu in ‘Incident at Hidden Temple.’ (Photo: John Quincy via The Broadway Blog.)

Chua fails to create a sufficiently believable world in which these multiple threads can be effectively woven together. And by having everyone speak in the same, mostly unaccented American English, even when they’re speaking Chinese (one character even speaks Chinese with a folksy American drawl), it remains unclear what language is being spoken when.

There are also any number of plot questions. Why, for instance, has Ava, who could have gone to America, remained in war-torn China to continue her journalism studies, when she could have studied abroad? Or why, if these studies are so important, hasn’t she decided what to do when she graduates? And why are Lucy and Ava given Western names?

An air of superficiality hovers not only over the writing but over the entire, stilted production, performed against Sheryl Liu’s set dominated by a homely wall built in false perspective and painted a dour, grayish-green. Hanhji Jang’s costumes are barely passable, and Pamela Kupper’s lighting only a bit better, although she creates a nice effect that makes the hidden temple visible.

Director Kaipo Schwab’s pacing for the two-hour play is uneven and his staging awkward, beginning with the thoroughly unconvincing stabbing that begins the play. A fight scene staged by Michael G. Chin has two men using traditional martial arts techniques, as if they were in a refereed match instead of a potentially life and death struggle. As for the acting, let’s just say better luck next time.

“Sometimes truth is just hidden in plain sight,” says the blind man, who, as per the convention, sees more clearly than anyone else. To which those who left at intermission might reply: “The truth shall set you free.”

Incident at Hidden Temple
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through February 12

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Chinese ‘Downtown Abbey’?”: Pan Asian Rep’s ‘A Dream of Red Pavilions’

January 28th, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Kelsey Wang, Ej An, and Mandarin Wu in 'A Dream of Red Pavilions.' (Photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog)

Kelsey Wang, Ej An, and Mandarin Wu in ‘A Dream of Red Pavilions.’ (Photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog)

It must have been a challenging task for British playwright Jeremy Tiang to dramatize one of China’s four major classical novels, which he’s titled A Dream of Red Pavilions. Cao Xueqin’s 2,500-page original, Hóng Lóu Mèng, known as Dream of the Red Chamber, A Dream of Red Mansions, Red Chamber Dream, or The Story of the Stone, was written during the Qing dynasty in the mid-18th century; its 80 chapters (expanded to 120 by later writers) introduce over 400 characters, 30 or so of them being principals. Tiang’s adaptation boils the sprawling epic down to 15 characters (played by 10 actors) in 30 scenes spread over two acts, focusing on the love triangle at the novel’s heart, much as does Pauline A. Chen’s 2012 novel, The Red Chamber.

Despite its enormous place in literary history—like Talmudists, scholars of “Redology” devote their entire lives to its study—the novel, one of Mao Zedong’s favorites, has received a number of TV and film versions; however, in comparison to plays based on the three other great novels, Journey to the West, The Tales of the Three Kingdoms, and Water Margin, relatively few plays have been inspired by it. The Chinese scholar, Dr. Mo Li, who accompanied me, imagines this may be because its great reliance on female characters creates casting difficulties for male-role actors in China’s role type-based repertory companies.

Cao’s novel, reportedly reflecting his own experiences, follows four of Beijing’s most distinguished families as they fall on hard times; the play covers only the Jia family’s troubles. It begins with a dream in which a neglected stone is transformed by Fairy False (Mandarin Yu)—who reappears several times, including in the dream after which the play is titled—into Jia Baoyu (Vichet Chum). A passing monk (E.J. An) agrees to make him a human, and he’s born to the Jia family with a jade stone in his mouth. Similarly, a flower watered by Baoyu becomes a girl named Daiyu (Kelsey Wang), Baiyu’s cousin; the two are predestined to be lovers. When she and Baoyu are adolescents, the motherless, sickly girl joins his family. Romantic complications follow when Baochai (Leanne Cabrera), another cousin, joins the family. Baoyu loves Daiyu but his parents trick him into marrying Baochai, after which the situation grows darker and the heartache predicted by the monk comes to pass.

Vichet Chum and Kelsey Wang in 'A Dream of Red Pavilions.' (Photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

Vichet Chum and Kelsey Wang in ‘A Dream of Red Pavilions.’ (Photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

The story, at least as dramatized here, lacks dramatic thrust, notwithstanding its conflicted love story; it advances in incremental steps that are mainly interesting for how they introduce historical culture and family life, in which poetry holds an important role (Tiang’s verse is often charming). Among the interesting features is the Jia patriarch’s (Fenton Li) joy when his daughter, Yuanchun (Mandarin Wu), is named imperial concubine.

The story encompasses the downfall during the period of the wealthy aristocracy; Dr. Li suggests that, in its depiction of attempts to maintain the disintegrating, albeit corrupt, Qing feudal society, the novel bears an interesting resemblance to TV’s depiction of the decline of the English aristocracy in “Downton Abbey.” The exigencies of time, however, require that most of the book’s nuances—which examine numerous political, religious, legal, social, and economic elements of Qing China—be reduced, exposing only the romantic skeleton.

Although its efforts fall short, the Pan-Asian Repertory Company is to be commended for this ambitious world premiere, performed on a spare stage backed by Sheryl Liu’s attractive, Chinese pavilion-like setting. To help move the episodic play along, a maid (Amanda Centeno), like the “stage manager” in traditional Chinese theatre, rearranges the furniture as necessary. Lovely period costumes, several quite striking, have been designed by Hyun Sook Kim. Surprisingly, veteran Victor En Yu Tan’s lighting lacks the creative versatility, color, and focus required for a play like this.

Co-directors Tisa Chang and Lu Yu are correct to introduce elements of traditional Chinese theatre, especially in the graceful movements of the Fairy; more such qualities are needed, though, too much of what remains being theatrically bland. Hopefully, as the production settles in, the pace will pick up and the many scene transitions will snap instead of drag, as they do now. Although Ian Wehrle’s sound design provides occasional interpolations of Chinese music, the production might have benefitted from sustained musical underscoring to enhance its only rarely realized potential.

The Pan-Asian’s actors struggle to offer three-dimensional performances, but most are unable to overcome the distance between their modern, Western sensibilities and their 18th-century personages. What results seems more an exotic costume drama for high school students than a memorable exploration of a literary masterpiece. Regardless of its flaws, without the Pan-Asian Rep New York audiences would never have the opportunity to contemplate so significant a part of world literature and, perhaps, go on to read a translation and discover the original on its own terms.

A Dream of Red Pavilions
Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through February 14

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

Review: Pan Asian Rep’s ‘Sayonara’

July 9th, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

'Sayonara' (photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Sayonara’ (photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

First: a few background words on this show’s evolution. In the years following the end of America’s postwar occupation of Japan (1952), a steady stream of movies and books about the clash of cultures between the American military presence and the Japanese citizenry poured forth. Of great interest were the romantic complications ensuing when GIs married Japanese women, as reflected in such movies as A Japanese War Bride (1952) and Sayonara (1957). The latter, based on James A. Michener’s bestselling 1954 novel, won four Academy Awards and starred Marlon Brando. Despite sterling performances and images of 1950s Japan, however, its sentimental datedness and length now drag it down.

Michener had been encouraged to write his book by Broadway director Josh Logan, who had staged the megahit South Pacific (1949), based on Michener’s stories; Logan was hoping Michener’s new book could become a Broadway musical that might benefit from its exploitation of Japan’s colorful performing arts. The story’s heart is in the tale of racial prejudices embedded in the love affairs of Americans and their Nipponese girlfriends. Instead of a musical, Logan turned the book into the aforementioned movie, and it wasn’t until 1987, when Sayonara: The Musical premiered at New Jersey’s Papermill Playhouse, that others adapted it as a musical. (It hews more closely to the book than does the movie.) After meeting with an unenthusiastic reception, it underwent alterations and had multiple presentations, but none in New York. The disappointing production now at the Clurman, directed by Tisa Chang, is the show’s Big Apple premiere.

Ya Han Chang (center) in 'Sayonara' (photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

Ya Han Chang (center) in ‘Sayonara’ (photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

It’s easy to see why Sayonara shows musical theater promise. Set in the exotic locale of Kobe, Japan, in 1952, it focuses on a conflicted Korean War pilot, Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver (Morgan McCann, in the Brando role), a general’s son with a bright future. At first, Gruver buys into the official military proscriptions against “fraternization,” despite the thousands of American servicemen ignoring the rules. (Michener himself was married to a Japanese.) Gruver is engaged to Eileen (Jennifer Piacenti), daughter of Gruver’s C.O., General Mark Webster (Scott Klavan), who, with his wife, Miriam (Sandy York), holds anti-Japanese prejudices.

Gruver reluctantly agrees to be best man at the interracial nuptials of Private Joe Kelly (Edward Tolve) and Katsumi (Natsuko Hirano), which brings him into the orbit of the beautiful Hana-ogi (Ya Han Chang). She’s the leading performer of male roles in the all-women revue company called Takarazuka, in which the performers live a convent-like life separating them from the opposite sex. The Hana-ogi connection allows for a tab version of a Takarazuka show, Sayonara’s musical highlight, energetically choreographed by Rumi Oyama. Gruver’s affair with Hana-ogi causes the expected complications, and Joe and Katsumi’s marriage is victimized by punitive policies that, as the libretto emphasizes ironically, were already on the verge of extinction.

Morgan McCann and Ya Han Chang in 'Sayonara' (photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

Morgan McCann and Ya Han Chang in ‘Sayonara’ (photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

Despite the story’s romantic, geographic, and socially provocative potential, Sayonara suffers from a flatfooted book (William Luce), uninspired lyrics (Hy Gilbert), and generic music (George Fischoff), some of it with Japanese overtones, whose weaknesses emerge when restricted to an offstage keyboard (Sarah Brett England) and reeds (Michael Mahadeen). One can only imagine what South Pacific’s Rodgers and Hammerstein would have done with this material, given their other excursions into theatrical orientalia.

Aside from the various kimono (credited to Keiko Obremski) worn by the Japanese characters (not a man among them), there’s not much here to admire visually in a show that cries out for spectacle. Even the military costumes (credited to Carol A. Pelletier) are slapdash. Working on a clearly restricted budget, set designer Sheryl Liu provides a dullish unit set of sliding panels, dominated up center by a red Japanese bridgeway, representing the passageway from the Takarazuka theatre to the performers’ dormitory but also symbolizing the bridge between Eastern and Western cultures. A shoji screen backs scenes in Joe and Katsumi’s home, where a rather unattractive noren curtain hangs in the doorway.

Ako in 'Sayonara' (photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

Ako in ‘Sayonara’ (photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

In addition to several casting misfires, including a carelessly coiffed leading lady who’s as Japanese as chow mein, the production falters from singing that never gets its nose beyond mere competence. I’m happy, however, to applaud Ako Dachs as Teruko-san, the older woman who rules firmly over the Takarazuka performers. Dachs, who was in earlier productions of Sayonara in other roles, brings distinct vocal and physical skills to her supporting role. Her Teruko-san offers a nice contrast to the more stereotypical servility of women like Katsumi.

Sayonara—with its theme of lovers struggling to overcome social prejudices in order to marry—is still relevant, if not in the way Michener intended. But relevance can’t overcome artistic and technical flaws. I saw the show at a preview, when things seem not to have fully jelled; hopefully, problems like the lack of a tight, rhythmic undercurrent; inefficient scene shifts; and off-key singing will be improved. If not, audiences will be saying “sayonara” soon enough.

Sayonara: The Musical
Pan Asian Repertory Theatre
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 West Forty-second Street, NYC
Through July 26

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

Review: “Film Chinois” at Pan Asian Rep.

January 22nd, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Katie Lee Hill and Jean Brassard in "Film Chinois" (photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

Katie Lee Hill and Jean Brassard in “Film Chinois” (photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

As I trudged down 42nd Street after seeing the Pan-Asian Rep’s production of Damon Chua’s Film Chinois, the chill January night air slapped me in the face like a bowl of cold lo mein. I breathed deeply, hoping to settle my sour stomach, still struggling to digest the contents of this gristly dramatic repast. The drunk on the A train lying in a pool of his own dinner didn’t make the job any easier. Reviewing is tough, I thought, but someone’s gotta do it.

Benjamin Jones and Rosanne Ma in "Film Chinois." (photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

Benjamin Jones and Rosanne Ma in “Film Chinois.” (photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

Chua’s film noirish caper takes place in 1947 Beijing, or Peking as the foreigners still called it. Mao’s communist hordes are fighting the Nationalists for control, and the exotic city crawls with spies and undercover missions. We see smoky restaurants and nightclubs; sexy femmes fatales in cheongsams, one a Red proselytizer called Chinadoll (Rosanne Ma), the other a nightclub songstress named Simone (Katie Lee Hill); a shady Belgian ambassador (Jean Brassard), Simone’s lover, who promises to get her out of the motherland if she’ll obtain something he’s after; a handsome American agent named Randolph (Benjamin Jones), passing as a tea trader; and a Chinese man of many faces (James Henry Doan), one of them noted for its prominent mole with a long white hair.

Tommy Dorsey’s “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and period Chinese tunes set the mood, everyone’s a tobacco chimney, bad guys are knocked cold with a single punch, there’s an elusive pair called the Twins, and the props include guns, a reel of film, cash-filled envelopes, and transit papers (a nod to or steal from Casablanca?). Characters, especially the beautiful but dangerous Chinadoll—who manipulates much of the action—break the fourth wall to talk directly to us, the irony poured on like hot sauce. In short, a shadowy world of intrigue, sex, money, bloodshed, torture, politics, and secrets.

(l to r) Rosanne Ma, James Henry Doan, and Katie Lee Hill in "Film Chinois." (Photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Rosanne Ma, James Henry Doan, and Katie Lee Hill in “Film Chinois.” (Photo: John Quincy Lee via The Broadway Blog.)

Sounds promising. But, with uninspired direction by Kaipo Schwab, uninspired casting, and an uninspired script that’s both obtuse and lacking in dramatic torque, the 105-minute production (with one intermission) creeps when it needs to race. The tension sags—even during a Mexican standoff—and when the big reveal arrives you couldn’t care less. About that standoff, where the two dames level pistols at one another across a tabletop: tell me why, if I really want to shoot someone, how their holding a gun is going to stop me. They’ll be spare ribs before they can pull the trigger.

Film Chinois is about as close to a fine updated rendering of mid-20th-century Chinese film noir as your strip mall take-out place is to a Michelin-rated Chinese restaurant. For a movie equivalent of the latter, take a peek at Ang Lee’s 2007 film about espionage in wartime Shanghai, Lust, Caution. Unlike Film Chinois, I guarantee it ain’t chop suey.

Film Chinois
Beckett Theatre
410 W. 42nd Street
Through February 8

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).