Behind the theme of war, Incident at Hidden Temple is a thriller of sorts. Sisters Ava (played by Ying Ying Li) and Lucy (Briana Sakamoto), first seen in China travelling on a train littered with American soldiers, are separated when a disturbing road block forces their train to a halt. With some time to kill, the sisters exit the train and are introduced to a mysterious stranger–Dinh James Doan as a blind man with a penchant for speaking in riddles–who tells them about a Hidden Temple located just a short ways away. The temple, the blind man cryptically tells them, is filled with lost treasures but will only be revealed to those of pure heart.
Ava, a journalism student studying abroad, sets out on her own to find this temple, but returns to the train empty handed. The only explanation provided by Doan’s mysterious gatekeeper is quite simply that she must not be pure of heart. While Ava was out looking for the temple, she left her young sister at the train station by herself, and Sakamato’s Lucy is all-too relieved to see her sister has returned safely. Sakamato is a twenty-something tasked with the challenge of playing a preteen (if not younger), and in a project so steeped in realism, it is a far stretch to say the least. While waiting for the train, Ava also encounters a young fighter pilot by the name of Walter Hu (Tim Liu) whose origin ends up being a central mystery to the entire play.
Finally, the tracks are cleared and the train is set to depart, but not before an unforeseen encounter prevents Ava from boarding. With Lucy on the train and Ava still on the ground, she has no choice but to wait for the next train. Hours later, Ava arrives at an American military base and so begins her search for her sister, who has not been seen at the base and is nowhere to be found.
In between Ava’s search for a sister, a murder mystery unfolds concerning a possible undercover Chinese communist’s attempt to sabotage the Nationalist and American agenda. There is also the conflict between Flying Tigers commander Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles) and the instructions given by General Stilwell–conveyed to Van Holt by Stilwell’s aide, a domineering Nick Ryan. Miles’ Van Holt and his secretary Jing (Rosanne Ma) are on the side of the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek (a double cast Doan), while Stilwell and his presence firmly oppose Kai-shek’s strategy for securing mainland China.
Incident at Hidden Temple is suggestive of many different ideas pertaining to allegiance, cooperation and strategy, but unfortunately the obscure and fictional storylines are worn thin and far too overstretched by the play’s final curtain. Whether an indication of a flawed script beyond repair, or a lack of thoughtful direction by director Kaipo Schwab, many performances are over embellished, exaggerated, and hardly resemblant to any sympathetic or even likeable characters.
Advertised as a film noir for the stage, Incident is saved only by the dramatic and impressive production design. Sheryl Liu’s set is simplistic yet atmospheric, enhanced by Pamela Kupper’s moody lighting–the use of jewel-tones and intentionally cast shadows is very effective. Also Hahnji Jang’s costume design is period-appropriate and enough variations are made between officer uniforms to keep character confusion (multiple actors are double cast) to a minimum. The only thing missing is a grounded sense of purpose from the cast, whose collective performances are melodramatic and unbecoming of a wartime drama.
This staging of Damon Chua’s latest is overall a disappoint, but it remains to be seen as to whether the production is responsible, or if the script calls for a much-needed overhaul. The premise is enticing, and the story is there, but somewhere along the line this potentially dark and riveting war story derails and ends up as an uneven and confounding play with little to no sense of purpose.
Incident at Hidden Temple (through February 12, 2017)
Pan Asian Repertory Theatre
Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street in Manhattan
For tickets, please call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.panasianrep.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission