Jung Chang's memoir reduced at A.R.T.

Swans song
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  February 22, 2012

PORTABLE MAO The condensed stage version of Jung Chang's best-selling memoir delivers pageantry but little in the way of flesh-and-blood characters.
Confucius might have doubted the wisdom of bringing Wild Swans to the stage. Of course, that venerable philosopher was yesteryear's news in the China of Mao Zedong. But Jung Chang's compelling 1991 bestseller, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, is a 500-plus-page epic memoir that interweaves personal and political history across a skein of almost a century. To translate such a complex admixture of contemporary events, family tragedy, and coming of age into theater, without being reductive, would be impossible. Nonetheless, there might have been a better whittling than this by playwright Alexandra Wood. A co-production by American Repertory Theater and England's Young Vic and Actors Touring Company, it is in its world premiere at the Loeb Drama Center (through March 11). In Wood's wooden adaptation, which has been in development in England for several years, it isn't just Chairman Mao who speaks in placards.

By far the most dynamic thing about the theater piece is its design — which pushes a storm of rhetoric and pageantry along while suggesting a teaming, rapidly changing China. Whereas the book encompasses the lives of Chang's grandmother, her parents, and her siblings, the Wild Swans production team, led by director Sacha Wares, reasonably chooses to focus on the parents, fervently idealistic Communist officials persecuted and disillusioned by the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s. The siblings do not appear, and the necessarily simplified story of the grandmother — a warlord's concubine who managed to hold on to her daughter — takes the form of an entertainment enacted by rod puppets. The contrast between this quaint art — performed by the actors playing Chang's parents as they try to convert hoeing peasants to Communism in the late 1940s— and influential Chinese artist Wang Gongxin's striking, fragmenting video design for the play's final scenes, set in the '70s, is in itself a comment on cultural transition.

Divided into five "acts" sans intermission, Wild Swans moves from a noisy open market and hand-tilled field to the honking-and-bus-filled streets of modern China. In Miriam Buether's set design, the bamboo-covered walls of the early scenes are peeled away to reveal muted versions of Chinese Communist propaganda posters, with their empowered peasants beaming over cornucopias of produce. The production also fields a large ensemble portraying farmers and laborers, self-criticizing Communist bureaucrats, insistent proselytizers for the Great Leap Forward that led to widespread famine, and the youthful, intimidating Red Guards bent on deifying Mao and purging a previous generation. At the crux of the progression are Chang's earnest if unbending father, condemned for criticizing Mao, and her mother, rendered suspicious by her family background. Katie Leung, best known as Cho Chang in the Harry Potter films, plays the teenage Er-Hong (Chang's name before she changed it to Jung), familially loyal but angling for an escape through education.

The acting by the large cast is but serviceable, though the flag-waving Red Guard pageantry is impressive. Gareth Fry's Eastern-influenced sound design and some frenzied patriotic anthems are utilized to rousing effect. And there is one protracted moment, in which Mao's Red Sun presides over a choreographed denunciation of the parents, actress Ka-Ling Cheung's face a mask of contained sorrow, that starts to capture the enormity and spirit of the book. Certainly the whole project is nothing if not worthy and ambitious. But you know early on that, with its speechifying characters and shades of Socialist Realism, this Wild Swans is not going to work. Chang's memoir is a thing of flesh and blood, eyewitness and compassion. The play, however aspiring, is all calligraphy and cardboard. ^

Related: Interview: Katie Leung follows Harry Potter with ART's Wild Swans, Review: Generic Theater takes on Havel's tale of an intellectual amid revolution, I was a teenage Sandinista, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Communism, Theater, memoir,  More more >
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