(l to r) Jasmine Chiu and PeiJu Chien-Pott in ‘Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise.’
(Photo Stephanie Berger. Courtesy The Shed.)
“Maybe if you had wanted less, you would have gotten more,” says Lone Peak (David Patrick Kelly) to his estranged son-in-law Doug Prince (David Torok) in the final climactic moments of Chen Shi-Sheng’s Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise. Flying dancers, a stage that pools with water and floor traps bursting open into flames can’t fix an artistically disparate approach to a newly penned American fable about an underground sect called the House of Dragon. Lesson learned.
Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, presented in a vacuous space that craves (and currently lacks) identity, is one of The Shed’s first commissioned works. The seemingly baffled audience at a recent performance of the martial arts-driven multidisciplinary piece dashed for the door while the hard-working ensemble was still taking its bows, a spattering of applause echoing through The McCourt, The Shed’s 17,000-square-foot flexible space suited for large-scale performances.
Chen’s work features additional contributions by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, co-writers and producers of family-friendly films such as TROLLS and the Kung Fu Panda series. That mainstream commercial sensibility undermines the core of Chen’s concept by turning the work into theme park fodder.
Presented in two acts, Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise follows a marriage gone awry when Doug attempts to murder Lone Peak’s daughter (PeiJu Chien-Pott) and one of their twin babies so he can become master of this mystical world (otherwise known as Flushing, Queens). In the second act (with mother and daughter resurrected) the siblings are now teenagers practicing martial arts under different tutelage, eventually reuniting to do battle against their father and save the world — from what, we never really know.
Set designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams has created an environment that looks more like Krypton than Queens, with suspended panels of fabric, a lone metal staircase to nowhere, and a multi-level stage that looks like a topographic map. In addition to its many head-scratching incongruities, Chen’s globally assembled company is a jack-of-all-trades but master of none, except for their execution of Akram Khan’s movement choreography and Zhang Jun martial arts choreography. It is in these moments — sometimes ritualistic and meditative and at others fiercely dynamic and athletic — that Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise finds its footing.
But even with the entire company of 20 performers on stage, The McCourt feels ghostly. It doesn’t help that Brandon Wolcott’s sound design offers a simultaneously muddy and tinny amplification of spoken dialogue and song. Clarity won’t bring life to the score, though, which features hefty contributions by Sia. When the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter’s pre-recorded voice soars as the company takes its bows, their lack of vocal prowess is that much more evident.
“My intention was to cast actors regardless of their ethnicity because I believe human experience is not exclusive but rather transcendental in nature,” writes Chen. I applaud that effort, but the work suffers similar stylistic incongruities that plagued the recent King Lear starring Glenda Jackson with a multi-cultural cast. At its core, the audience still must be invested in the world of the play, however fantastical or futuristic it may be.
Alex Poots, The Shed’s artistic director and CEO, has previously served as the director of the Manchester International Festival (a bi-annual artist-led festival that presents works from across the spectrum of performing and visual arts and pop culture) and the artistic director of the Park Avenue Armory. In our era of cancel culture, it would be deeply unfair to completely dismiss this work or his vision for The Shed’s potential. At just over three months old, The Shed is still in its infancy, like a baby screaming to be nurtured and fed. But like any new parent, what goes in the bottle is up for debate.
Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise
The McCourt at The Shed
545 West 30th Street, NYC
Through July 27
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.