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A Dream of Red Pavilions

The classic Chinese novel makes an engrossing story of love, betrayal and greed in a colorful, lucid stage adaptation from the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre.

Vichet Chum and Kelsey Wang in a scene from Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s production of “A Dream of Red Pavilions” (Photo credit: George Quincey Lee)

Vichet Chum and Kelsey Wang in a scene from Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s production of “A Dream of Red Pavilions” (Photo credit: John Quincey Lee)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Although Cao Xueqin’s 18th century novel, A Dream of Red Pavilions (also known as A Dream of the Red Chamber), has the same place in Chinese literature as Tolstoy’s War and Peace has in Russia and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past has in France, it is not well known in the United States. The Pan Asian Repertory Theatre hopes to correct that omission with its colorful and lucid stage adaptation by British-trained playwright and translator Jeremy Tiang. By focusing on the core story of the 120 chapter novel with its 40 main characters in a two hour theatrical version, this engrossing and epic story of love, betrayal, greed and tradition becomes accessible to a wider audience. Followers of Downton Abbey will find this to be the Asian equivalent with just as many plot complications in the social hierarchy of the Qing Dynasty.

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 .

Kelsey Wang, E.J. An and Mandarin Wu in a scene from Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s production of “A Dream of Red Pavilions” (Photo credit: George Quincey Lee)

Kelsey Wang, E.J. An and Mandarin Wu in a scene from Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s production of “A Dream of Red Pavilions” (Photo credit: John Quincey Lee)

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

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (390 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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