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Theatre in Review: Snow in Midsummer (Classic Stage Company)

John Yi and Tommy Bo. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

When it comes to plot twists, Snow in Midsummer may be the season's record-setter. Set in a provincial manufacturing town not too far from Shanghai -- called "New Harmony," a sure sign skullduggery is afoot -- it is an intricately woven braid of love and murder with additional strands of supernatural mischief. It begins on a hopeful note, but don't you believe it: Handsome Zhang, heir to a prosperous business, is about to close a deal on his family's factories, selling them to female entrepreneur Tianyun. Handsome plans to take the money and run, traveling the world and resettling somewhere in the West with his male lover Rocket Wu.

Handsome is ready with a ring and a proposal but Fei-Fei, Tianyun's six-year-old adopted daughter, warns against doing so during "ghost month," a Buddhist superstition. She's onto to something: Why hasn't the area hasn't seen a drop of rain in three years? Who is the ghostly apparition painfully dragging her body across the stage? Why is Rocket having seizures for no apparent medical reason? For that matter, why is the surgeon who performed a heart transplant on Rocket so evasive about the source of the organ? Exactly how many lies has Handsome told Rocket about the operation, and what does the killing of Handsome's father have to do with it? Others with secrets include Tianyun, who has a past that she would rather not talk about, and Nurse Wong, a bar hostess who is exceptionally able when it comes to masterminding a frameup. The action includes rape, suicide, child-selling, and a bizarre, paranormal cardiac procedure; it's a very crowded two-and-a-half hours.

This teeming plot also strains credulity to the breaking point. Playwright Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig has based Snow in Midsummer on The Injustice to Dou Yi That Moved Heaven and Earth by Guan Hanqing, a playwright of the 13th and 14 centuries. Whatever the original is like, it adapts most awkwardly to the present day. Contrivances abound, beginning with the notably ill-timed government-mandated evacuation, citing drought conditions, of New Harmony as soon as Tianyun closes her deal (Did no one see this turn of events coming? If things are so bad there, why does she want the factories?) The script never explains how Tianyun, originally a sexually abused teenage factory worker, rose to become owner of "the largest synthetic flower company in the country." Other credibility issues are endemic to Zi Alikhan's production: For the plot to make sense, Tianyun should look significantly older than Teresa Avia Lim, who plays her. And the public romance between Handsome and Rocket is a little hard to credit, given China's notoriously homophobic culture; would they really be so open with each other in a backwater where traditional values prevail?

Rocket's reaction to the deceptions connected with his transplant also seems overwrought, although, admittedly, he has been hugely deceived. Then again, part of Cowhig's point is that, years after the Cultural Revolution tried to wipe out Buddhist beliefs, they continue to flourish, providing him with reason for distress. And, indeed, the action is packed with occult events, to a degree that may undermine the playwright's intent. Snow in Midsummer is billed as being, in part, about climate change, but the drought is caused by a wronged woman's curse, not the abuse of the environment. (I know; it's a metaphor. But still.)

Caught up in the gaudy, ornate plot, the characters never develop interior lives. Indeed, the cast members are so busy racing around, dropping bombshells, that they don't much chance to act, beyond shouting and making earnest faces. The most effective work comes from John Yi and Wai Ching Ho, as, respectively, Handsome and Nurse Wong, especially in what can be fairly called The Mother of All Recognition Scenes. Lim is always a pleasure to have on hand, although here she has some mighty heavy lifting, plot-wise, to do. As the ghost in residence, Dorcas Leung is given any number of tedious speeches; otherwise, she wanders around, howling, "Justice! Justice!" As Fei-Fei, Fin Moulding needs to work on her diction; too many of her lines are nearly impossible to make out.

The design team has provided a simple, flexible solution for presenting this rangy, large-cast drama on a three-sided thrust stage. The minimal, but effective, scenic design, by the collective known as dots, features a raised platform, with a table and chair, at stage center, which easily stands in for several locations; additional touches include an authentic-looking Communist-era banner, a Buddhist shrine, and a white bolt of cloth that, following an execution, turns blood red. The gifted lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew transforms the space with a variety of colors and angles; her work is, as always, varied and precise. Costume designer Johanna Pan is especially inventive when dressing Leung's ghostly character, but all of work her is well-observed. Fan Zhang provides suitably ominous incidental music in addition to sirens, gunshots, and, before the show, cuts from the Chinese indie rock band Schoolgirl Byebye.

Too melodramatic and unconvincing to succeed, Snow in Midsummer exerts the lurid interest of a crime scene, but real engagement is undermined by ponderous pacing and an unearned air of solemnity. Whatever statement Cowhig is trying to make is obscured by a parade of melodramatic events. Its big takeaway? Beware of ghosts. --David Barbour

(15 June 2022)

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