Friday, June 27, 2014

The Story of Yu-Huan

The Story of Yu-Huan
by Joanna Chan
produced by Yangtze Repertory Theatre
directed by Joanna Chan


Yu-Huan, Chinese, lived during the Tang dynasty, in the eighth century. She was taken by the Emperor Xuan Zong, to be his wife (she was already his daughter-in-law). During a revolt, and through the machinations of politics, through no action of her own, she was ordered to kill herself.

Yu-Huan’s story has been made into a play by Joanna Chan called, appropriately, The Story of Yu-Huan, recently closed. It’s performed in Mandarin and English.

Your curious critic, always eager to uncover stage oddities, thought that this sounded highly promising. Unfortunately, the bulk of the play is in Mandarin, and for those of us unskilled in that language it’s largely undecipherable. Even the brief synopsis above could only be written with the aid of a press release. This problem obviously puts limitations on a reviewer.

The Story of Yu-Huan, however, managed to provide some satisfaction even without a discernible plot, largely through Harrison Xu HaoJian’s marvelous costumes. The designs, mostly traditional Chinese, are superb, delicate or rough, in solids and prints, sometimes with intricate, exotic headpieces. The stage is bare (with colored back panels), all the more to accent their beauty. Yu Huan’s opening and closing costume is a flowing white dress that seems to float on the stage as she dances.

The play has a lot of dance, choreographed by the actress playing Yu Huan, Ashley Liang. It’s as wonderful as the design. All are elegant, even the macho battle dance.

The playwright has translated a few scenes interestingly and more or less successfully via conversation, with one character speaking Mandarin and the other replying in English. The production is also directed by the playwright, who makes the essence of some scenes clear without the aid of words.

During the course of the play the title character speaks only a single, very brief, line. It’s a brave and brilliant choice by Ms. Chan. It articulates Yu Huan’s passivity, her victimization, as events occur around her.

It’s enormously frustrating, to say the least, that the play neglects its Anglophonics. Its  talents would have been more appreciated in the context of a drama.