Photo by Ed Kreiger
One danger with setting a play in the past is that its author knows exactly where that past’s footsteps will lead. Armed with perfect hindsight, the story can be a history lesson or period piece, but never a prophecy. Adapting a classic is even riskier business since winking allusions to a known future can, depending on the acuity of their conversations, have the characters sounding either laughably naive or suspiciously prescient — and make the adapter look like a literary vandal. All of which renders Chay Yew’s new work, A Winter People, a bold gamble. Not only does he transplant Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard to China, he moves it forward in time from the Romanov calm-before-the-apocalypse to a period of war and revolution. What floated as metaphor in the stagnant air of Chekhovian chatter is sharpened to literal debate in Yew’s handsome, self-directed production at the Theater@Boston Court.
The story, set in 1935, begins with a matriarch’s homecoming: After a five-year absence from her ancestral estate, Madame Xia (Emily Kuroda) has returned to China. Despite the outward joviality that greets the proud Xia, it’s apparent that time has not been kind to her family’s fortunes. Xia had left China following the twin sorrows of her first husband’s death and the drowning of her only son. Although the cover story from abroad had been that Xia was performing concert recitals in San Francisco, the truth translated into demeaning gigs as an exotic warbler on burlesque stages — even as her new American husband ran off with another woman.
Because of Xia’s dreamy, free-spending generosity, the provincial estate and its once-famous groves of ying fa cherry trees now face public auction. A local businessman named Liao (Greg Watanabe) offers a solution: sell off tracts of the property to bidders willing to build “affordable-housing” subdivisions on the leveled orchards and the family’s 300-year-old home. Chekhov students who remember how poorly this idea resonated with Xia’s Russian counterpart, Madame Ranevskaya, may rest assured it fares no better with Xia.
Those Japanese cherry trees, which have blossomed in time for Xia’s April arrival, seem more important to her than the happiness of her three daughters, and it is their neglected misery that drives this narrative toward its December ending. Wu (Elizabeth Pan), the eldest, is the filial trio’s most oppressed; even though she was born after the forward-thinking Nationalist revolution that overthrew the Manchus, Xia had her grow up with bound feet as a sacrificial gesture to tradition — and to get Xia off the hook with her parents for marrying beneath her social status. Wu, who moves about in special shoes, is locked into a spiteful marriage with the older Zhou (Dennis Dun), a clownish figure much more attuned to the call of alcohol than work.
Ming (Lydia Look), the middle daughter, is still yearning for a husband who, by all reckoning, should be the cherry-orchard-busting Liao, except that he can never quite bring himself around to pop the question. The most optimistic daughter, Liang, is a teenager with a crush on Wei (Ryun Yu), a perpetual student who has cast a spell on her with his talk of revolution. As the auction draws nearer, the family malaise thickens and imprisons those around Xia, including her swishy brother, Han (Ken Narasaki), who proclaims himself “a closet communist,” and the insolent valet Shang (Teddy Chen Culver), who is carrying on a backdoor romance with Wu.
As in all Chekhovian villages, people here talk a lot but only become more of what they already are, while lamenting the people they might have been. Han lectures local waiters on French impressionism; Zhou ingratiates himself with anyone who has money; Liao pleads for Xia to sell her land to builders while he keeps Ming at arm’s length; Wei talks up Mao’s Long March and persuades Liang to join him on it, and the obsequious, aged servant, Qing (Jeanne Sakata), like Chekhov’s servant Firs, sleepwalks in and out of memories.
Chekhov’s plays prove the adage that misery loves company — and the more, the merrier. Yew certainly understands this and creates an environment that is expansive with nostalgia and longing, but also claustrophobic with diminishing possibilities. His production’s look, designed by Yevgenia Nayberg and lit by José López, might be called grandly austere: a few stylized ying fa poles that are moved to suit scene changes, a cyclorama given to displaying silhouettes against sweeping palettes of yellow or red, and some perfunctory furnishings placed on a hardwood floor. Dori Quan’s robes and gowns similarly convey a terse elegance. More important, Yew overlays the action (or lack of it) with the painful waiting games and casual verbal cruelties that Chekhov characters must endure and inflict. Several actors rise to the occasion. Kuroda’s Xia, part Imelda Marcos, part Norma Desmond, is dottily vexing and strangely sympathetic — “Why do we eat so much, drink so much, talk so much?” she asks, and we don’t know whether to slap her or pat her on the head. Sakata’s old Qing, with her snowy mane and unnerving voice, is a melancholy apparition who seems to have limped out of a Lu Hsun short story. Elizabeth Pan, however, leaves the biggest impression as the frustrated Wu. I cannot remember anything in the theater as heartbreaking as her defeated gaze when she learns at play’s end that not only is she to be abandoned once more by her mother, but also by her servant-lover. In those fading moments Pan’s eyes are pieces of glistening obsidian and her wounded silence becomes unbearable.
Small things in the script nag, however. Liao talks up a case for selling Xia’s estate to builders who are eager to erect new communities for workers and miners, but it’s hard to imagine there being a private construction boom in China during a worldwide depression, at a time when war loomed with Japan and with the Commu-
nists in open revolt. (In fact, modern China, with its emergent middle class, its newfound materialism and go-go speculators, would seem a more appropriate setting.) Yew hasn’t made A Winter People as perfect an Asian transplant as his Filipino adaptation of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba; however, The Cherry Orchard has a lot more baggage to move. Without running through a list of comparisons between the two plays, let it be said that Yew both condenses aspects of Chekhov while elaborating on his own Chinese setting, with the result that, with two hours and 30 minutes of stage time, it seems longer than it needs to be.
For one thing, Yew has problems explaining Chinese history without making it sound like exposition. Would a character like Liao really have to explain the opium wars to his listeners? Is it really necessary to have Wei recite Mao’s oft-quoted line cautioning against confusing revolutions with dinner parties? Yew might also have considered twice before having a Mao-suited Liang take the stage, at the end of Act 2, to sing and roil a red flag as though she’d strayed from a rehearsal for The Red Detachment of Women.
And here we butt up against the problem of predicting the past. Chekhov’s contemporary bourgeois were clueless about what to do or about what might be headed their way — and this is what makes them so compelling. Yew’s latter-day landowners, however, are not only living on top of a civil war and Japanese incursions, they have Mao quoted to them. If we feel the urge to shout at Chekhov’s characters, Yew’s are already being lectured.
My other quibble with this production is that Yew never encourages his cast members to really make his lines their own. Instead, they deliver dialogue that sounds read — or rather, dubbed — as though from some antiquated Constance Garnett translation of Chekhov. While the readings aren’t wooden, we seldom feel we are listening to anything more than actors reciting pages from a script. This may or may not have been a directorial choice, because A Winter People falls in line with so many productions seen locally in which a play’s words sound like dialogue instead of conversation, and emotions are translated, not shared.
A WINTER PEOPLE | Adapted from Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard by CHAY YEW | At the THEATER@BOSTON COURT, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | (626) 683-6883 | Runs through September 19