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Theatre in Review: Incident at Hidden Temple (Pan-Asian Repertory/Theatre Row)

Ying Ying Lie, Walter Hu. Photo John Quincy

The incident referred to in the title of Damon Chua's play takes place at train station in Southwestern China in 1943; during a rest stop, young Ava Chao, egged on by a local blind man, wanders off to see the nearby Hidden Temple -- so named because, according to legend, only the pure in heart can see it. The temple doesn't make its presence known to Ava, but, on returning to the station, she discovers an American soldier, expiring from multiple stab wounds. The train leaves without her, and, when she catches up with it, Lucy, her younger sister, has vanished. Ava, seeking help, makes her way to the office of General Cliff Van Holt, head of the Flying Tigers, the group of American aviators who volunteered to fight the Japanese invasion of China in early 1941. Even in this relatively safe haven, Ava's problems multiply: Walter, the Chinese-American pilot she met back at Hidden Temple, now says his name is Buddy and he claims not to recognize her. As they used to say in '40s thrillers, Ava is trapped in a web of intrigue.

Ava, however, is one plucky young lady; over the course of two acts, she solves the murder, unmasks a smuggler, finds Lucy, romances the general, interviews Chiang Kai-Shek, and publishes a story in The New York Herald-Tribune. I should mention that she is a college girl. Really, a better title for Incident at Hidden Temple might be Nancy Drew Goes to War-Torn China.

Among the many things that don't make sense: Why are Ava and Lucy wandering around China in the middle of a world war? Their father, a noted journalist, is living in New York with his second wife. "We've been on the move, from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, then Guilin, now Guiyang." Van Holt, rather sensibly, wonders about the sanity of this arrangement, asking why Ava and Lucy aren't safe in the US. "My father asked me to go. But I'm still studying," she replies, adding, "I didn't realize it would be so bad. Now it's too late." Ava, by the way, is studying journalism, which is how she lands her exclusive with Chiang -- and, later, Mao Zedong. Throughout, Ava is presented as being both clueless and insanely accomplished; she is as muddled as the play that contains her. (There is no mystery, by the way. We see the murder up front and are fully aware of the killer's identity. After Ava identifies her, there is no payoff at all; it is only one of several plot lines that are allowed to trail off altogether.)

Chua is the author of Film Chinois, which was also produced by Pan-Asian Repertory to some acclaim. I didn't see it but it is apparently of a piece with Incident at Hidden Temple in that it uses the conventions of film noir to tell its story. But even the lowest-budget B melodrama from the Hollywood film factory was better constructed than this. The action is set against the background of the uneasy relationship between Chiang's nationalists and Mao's communists who joined together with the Flying Tigers to defeat the invading Japanese. Some scenes feature such large, indegistible lumps of exposition about base locations and the flight paths of Tomahawk missiles. And then there's the dialogue: "War does strange things to people." "Sometimes truth is just hidden in plain sight." "I don't know why you're doing this. But you don't fool me." That's the Allies for you -- fighting for freedom, one platitude at a time. (The dialogue is also heavily sprinkled with terms like "flash-forward," "newbie," and "bottom line," none of which were common parlance in the 1940s.

Under the circumstances, it's difficult to know what actors could do, so it probably signifies very little that the entire company gives such wooden performances; this may not even be a comment on the director, Kaipo Schwab, who at least keeps things moving along. Sheryl Liu's set design is dominated by a series of sharply angled, slate-colored walls that, at certain times, reveal louvered windows, and a fairly effective scenic/lighting effect showing the train's engine. Pamela Kupper's understated lighting is perfectly acceptable. (A final reveal of the much-talked-about Hidden Temple is another, very clever scenic/lighting effect.) The costumes, by Hanhji Jang, combine accurate renditions of military uniforms and some attractive Asian-style dresses for the ladies. Ian Wehrle's effective sound design includes the train engine, birdsong, a rendition "Stardust," and an insidiously effective broadcast by Tokyo Rose.

The idea of using vintage film techniques to tell a more politically aware story is a good one, but Incident at Hidden Temple bogs down in bad dialogue and overcomplicated, sometimes incoherent, plotting. This one is in desperate need of retakes. -- David Barbour

(27 January 2017)

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