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Review: A Dream of Red Pavilions

by Photo of Paul Hansen

A central Chinese novel is staged.

The Pan Asian Repertory Theatre is presenting the final week of its production of A Dream of Red Pavilions based on the classic 18th-century novel by Cao Xueqin. Although unfamiliar to many westerners, it is probably impossible to overstate the importance of this work in Chinese literary culture. Some editions of the novel are several thousand pages in length and creating a two hour stage adaption would be roughly the equivalent of generating a condensed version of War and Peace. With a script provided by Jeremy Tiang, I found this stage version very cohesive and it raised a number of still quite relevant (indeed timeless) philosophical questions.

The drama begins on a mystic, metaphysical note. A stone and a flower are transformed into human beings, cousins Baoyu and Daiyu. Baoyu is born as the only son into the Jia clan, an upper-class aristocratic family. Daiyu joins Baoyu's household several years later when her mother dies. Daiyu and Baoyu recognize each other as soul mates and feel destined to marry one day.

As Baoyu grows older, it is apparent that the fortunes of the Jia family are in decline, raising one of the central themes of the play - “Nothing lasts.” Those are literally the last two words of the drama and the concept is repeated, often quite artfully and poetically, throughout the drama.

Despite the underlying theme that prosperity and the affairs of the world are ephemeral, Baoyu's father, Jia Zheng, attempts to bolster the family fortunes. Zheng constantly badgers his son to study for the examinations to become an Imperial bureaucrat, while Baoyu prefers to study poetry with his companions in the garden.  Much to the rejoicing of Zheng and his wife, daughter Yuanchun is selected to be a concubine of the Emperor, which her parents feel will increase their influence at court and stabilize their situation. Yuanchun doesn't seem particularly happy at the thought of being sent to the palace and she is ultimately dismissed from the Emperor's court.

In a further attempt to stem the tide of decline, Baoyu, who is determined to marry Daiyu, is tricked by his parents into marrying another woman.  Baoyu's parents think another bride will better serve the family's interests. This leads to great heartache and turmoil.  Like the futility of attempting to save a sand castle from the onslaught of an approaching wave, the fortunes of the Jia family finally collapse amid allegations of loan sharking.

As noted above, a consistent theme of the play is that “nothing lasts.”  This raises the interesting question that if everything is ephemeral, how engaged should a person be in striving for material success, particularly if striving for that success creates great sorrow as it did for the Jia family. There is an interesting philosophical tension between the need to obtain at least some level of prosperity (at least for survival's sake) while recognizing the transitory nature of the endeavor. The tension between the demands of worldliness and recognition of ephemerality reminded me of the paradoxical tension of a koan, or a Buddhist parable or riddle, which is meant to provoke contemplation and insight. At any rate, I was still thinking about the thematic implications of the play for days after I saw it.

Vichet Chum as Baoyu and Kelsey Wang as Daiyu made a sympathetic pair of lovers and their performances were quite convincing as the basic dramatic frame of the production. Fenton Li as Jia Zheng created a facade of confidence while attempting to deal dexterously with proverbial crumbling walls. I particularly admired the performance of Shigeko Sara Suga as the family matriarch, whose fear at the imminent collapse of the family's fortunes seemed palpable.

Douglas Macur designed the artistic video projections. There is a particularly impressive moment towards the end of the play when amidst the ruins of the Jia dynasty, the stage is bathed in a projection of snowfall. The scene reminded me of the storm episode in King Lear, in which stripped of any pretense of majesty or prosperity, the characters are left to wander about in a world that seems pitiless and indifferent.

With lovely, classical costumes designed by Hyun Sook Kim, and artful sets and lighting by Sheryl Liu and Victor En Yu Tan, respectively, a viewer has a sense of being immersed in Chinese culture for two well paced hours. Effective dual direction was provided by Tisa Chang and Lu Yu which may have contributed to the sense that the play was actually less than two hours in length. Music by Angel Lam also contributed to the atmosphere.

Attending A Dream of Red Pavilions would be a charming way to celebrate the advent of the Chinese New Year, which is the Year of the Monkey. A monkey also happens to be the central character in another great Chinese classic, The Journey to the West. But that is another story which perhaps may lead to another insightful production by the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre.

A Dream of Red Pavilions is playing through February 14 at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row located at 410 West 42 nd St.  Frankly, I am tempted to see it again.

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