by Samuel L. Leiter
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.
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).