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Theatre in Review: A Dream of Red Pavilions (Pan Asian Repertory Theatre/Theatre Row)

Kelsey Wang, EJ An, Mandarin Wu. Photos: John Quincy Lee.

Talk about ambition: A display outside the theatre housing Pan Asian Rep's current production notes that the novel from which it is drawn is twice the length of War and Peace -- which goes a long way toward explaining the loose collection of scenes now on stage at Theatre Row. Apparently, there have been many adaptations of A Dream of Red Pavilions (sometimes known as A Dream of the Red Chamber), including feature films, television series, and comic books. I'm afraid what Pan Asian Rep is offering is perilously close to the third format.

According to Wikipedia, Cao Xueqin's 18th-century work, one of China's so-called Four Great Classical Novels, is a sprawling account of the changing fortunes of two aristocratic families and is peopled by a teeming cast of characters. Jeremy Tiang's adaptation focuses on one clan. The hero, Baoyu, is born with a piece of jade in his mouth, which is seen as a sign of good luck -- but what follows after a brief interlude of prosperity is a saga of dissolution and dispersal. As the family's first-born male -- he was preceded by three sisters -- hopes are high for Baoyu, but he quickly disappoints his father, Jia Zheng, who wishes the boy would spend less time mooning over poetry and the ladies of the household. As Baoyu grows up, much is riding on his performance in the imperial examination, an all-important gateway to a secure government position, which is desperately needed as the family has been living beyond its means for years.

Things start looking up for the family when Yuanchun, the eldest daughter, is named an imperial concubine. Wealth and privilege rain down on Jia Zheng and the others, until Yuanchun is discarded. By then, the future is looking grim. Baoyu is in love with his poor cousin, Daiyu, but Jia Zheng, determined to marry the boy off to Baochai, a wealthier relative, engineers a brazen deception at the altar, which sends Baoyu spinning into a crippling depression. Meanwhile, Daiyu starts coughing up blood and soldiers appear at the gate, bent on ransacking the family manse.

This is a lot for two hours, and I haven't even started on the framing device, in which we learn that Baoyu and Daiyu are the incarnations of a rock and a flower, thanks to the ministrations of a Buddhist monk, or the many fantasy and dream sequences. It's also a depiction of a society that is utterly foreign in its attitudes and underpinning; if the general rejoicing over Yuanchun's concubine status doesn't convince you of that, some of the statements made by the family's matriarch will. ("If you're angry, you can hit one of the servants, but you mustn't break your precious jade!") Furthermore, any number of plot points -- including Baoyu's love affair with his maid and his off-and-on relationship with a predatory older relative -- are mentioned, only to be dropped without explanation.

In some other format, with a writer who could place the novel's events in a clearer context, this could be a sweeping and involving narrative set against a larger canvas of the political and social realities of 17th-century China -- its imperial system and vast bureaucracy, and the complex status of women, who are officially second-class citizens but who often find ways to wield power. The play, however, mostly consists of big dollops of exposition delivered by a large cast of characters who can do little more than offer breathless updates.

The directors, Tisa Chang and Lu Yu, haven't found a way to fuse this combination of comedy of manners, historical drama, and the fantastic into a stylistic whole. This problem extends to the design. Sheryl Liu's abstract rendering of a red pavilion structure is serviceable enough, especially when functioning as a surface for Douglas Macur's projections of various interiors, mountains, and snowstorms. But more might have been done to harmonize the wildly disparate array of patterns and colors in Hyun Sook Kim's costumes, and Victor En Yu Tan's rather diffuse lighting design could do much more to reconfigure the stage. Ian Wehrle's sound design, especially the sinister sound of approaching horse's hooves, is effective.

The best thing to be said about A Dream of Red Pavilions is that it makes one curious to read the original. But it's far too much of a stretch to say that it succeeds as a stand-alone piece of work. Would anyone try to condense War and Peace to two hours of stage time in an intimate Off Broadway house? Now you have an idea of the challenge that has left this company at sixes and sevens. -- David Barbour

(29 January 2016)

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