A Dream of Red Pavilions is set in 18th century China during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. The framing story which gives the plot its mythic quality involves a stone and a flower that are reborn as cousins, the rich scion Baoyu and sickly Daiyu, who fall in eternal love. Like The Forsyte Saga or Downton Abbey, the social context depicted is the rise and fall of an aristocratic family. Beginning with the birth of Baoyu, the oldest son on whom the Jia family’s future fortunes rest, the play which takes place in 30 short scenes follows the affairs of these nobles and their servants over 20 years until Baoyu’s young adulthood.
When Daiyu, a poor relation and a sensitive poet who has tuberculosis-like symptoms, comes to live with her uncle Jia Zheng, a court minister, she and Baoyu are immediately attracted to each other. However, the family including the Matriarch, Jia Zheng’s mother, want him to make a more appropriate match with his healthy and vivacious cousin Baochai who also lives with them. Except for Baoyu’s loyal maid Qingwen, all conspire to bring this about. Running the large establishment is the avaricious Xifeng who does a great many dishonest things in order to keep up the Jia’s place in society as finances crumble. Among the family’s other children are the eldest daughter Yuanchun, a palace scribe, who becomes the Emperor’s favorite. When she falls out of favor, the family’s fortunes rapidly decline.
Although the play takes place in 30 short scenes, there is no problem following the fortunes of the Jia family or the doomed love of Baoyu and Daiyu. While the play at times seems a summary or outline version of the epic novel, it is always clear and lucid as to who the 17 characters are played by ten actors. The use of projections by Douglas Macur on screens in Sheryl Liu’s unit set allows for quick transitions of scenes, also revealing the shift in time as trees with pink blossoms give way to ones without leaves. Though the setting is minimalist, much attention has been paid to the lavish costumes by Hyun Sook Kim which create a pageant of aristocratic life in China from the 1750’s through the 1770’s .
Co-directed by artistic producing director Tisa Chang and Lu Yu, each member of the cast makes an indelible impression in very different roles, as well as creating a credible family unit. As Baoyu on whom the family’s fortunes rest, Vichet Chum is at first callow in the ways of a profligate playboy and later sober in the ways of a philosophical young man. Kelsey Wang’s Daiyu is sensitive, sympathetic and fragile throughout. Both Shigeko Sara Suga as the seemingly compassionate and kindhearted Matriach and Fenton Li as the distant Father bring authority to their generational roles.
Alison Hiroto as the domineering housekeeper with the will of iron is suitably oily and devious. Leanne Cabrera makes Baochai less silly and emptyheaded than she might as the flighty cousin hooked on luxuries. As Baoyu’s loyal servant Qingwen, Amanda Centeno is caring and softhearted, always being taken advantage of by the ladies of the house. Mandarin Wu demonstrates tremendous versatility playing three very different roles, so much so that it is necessary to look in the program to realize that she plays all of them: Fairy False in the opening and closing mythic sequences which also require her to perform traditional Chinese ballet; cousin Keqing who has amorous intentions toward Baoyu; and Yuanchun, the elegant elder sister who becomes the Emperor’s favorite. E.J. An and Audrey Wang make Baoyu’s younger sisters distinctly different personalities.
The proof of the success of Pan Asian Repertory’s production of Jeremy Tiang’s adaptation A Dream of Red Pavilions is that it is possible to follow the involved and complex story without any problem keeping the time or characters straight. Tisa Chang and Lu Yu have directed a production which is always absorbing, entertaining and compelling. Much credit must also go to the cast and the designers for making this possible. The production might have the effect of sending its audience back to the book which is as big a commitment as Gone with the Wind or War and Peace.
A Dream of Red Pavilions (through February 14, 2016)
Pan Asian Repertory Theatre
Clurman Theatre, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.panasianrep.org
Running time: two hours with one intermission