note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
Twenty minutes before “Wild Swans” opens, the Loeb Drama Center’s stage teems with activity during the prologue. Shoppers and vendors from a 1948 Chinese village marketplace exchange goods and pleasantries. Soldiers, an officer and his concubine, mingle amid the activity, benevolently keeping the peace while browsing among the pushcarts and benches.
Suddenly, the stage rumbles and shakes from an explosive crash. Times have changed, and that simple village life is lost forever, falling victim to the People’s Party idealism, that evolves into fanaticism. The Communists’ Robin Hood-type roots of spreading hope of equality and caring for all replaced the privileged ruling regime.
Like other movements paved with good intentions to feed, clothe, comfort and support the poor and downtrodden, China’s minions buckled under the mesmerizing spell of leader Mao Zedong, whose cult started in 1960. He brainwashed the masses, exploited his people, and created paranoia while indoctrinating the children. As China’s policy changed throughout three decades, some individuals’ ideals didn’t, creating a cultural divide and danger to themselves. Therein lies the story of “Wild Swans:Three Daughters of China,” Jung Chang’s memoir about her parents, her grandmother and herself, perilously surviving in China’s revolutionary upheaval.
The American Repertory Theater has joined forces with the Young Vic. and Actors Touring Company of England in Alexandra Woods’ stirring world premiere adaptation of Jung Chang’s 700-page, 1991 international best selling autobiography, that traces three generations of her family. It starts in 1948 and ends in 1978, through Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, the Great Purge, (misnomered as the Cultural Revolution), and beyond. Woods narrowed and streamlined the focus to Chang’s parents, perhaps too much, creating fast-paced scenes and highlights of their struggle, but lacking the full fury of the tumultuous time and depth and insight into the family’s personalities.
There is no introduction, no opening speeches, and no finale. As suddenly and seamlessly as the play opens, it closes abruptly with an industrial, cosmopolitan crescendo, and a young woman’s hope for the future. Five acts composed of 12 scenes flow seamlessly into each other as the background changes dramatically and the cast rolls and moves backgrounds and props off-stage, interspersed with anthemic music to denote change. Scenes shift from the marketplace to villages, a field hospital with loud speakers, to a headquarters office, divided at times into a triptych or large moving panels, revolving into vivid settings, including a dismally gray labor camp, and the bustling city of Beijing.
Although grandmother Yu-Fang (Julyana Soelistyo) was forced to marry a warlord and had a daughter, De-Hong, with him, she left, but lived a comfortable life. At 15, De-Hong refused to become betrothed to an influential Nationalist, and fell in love with Shou-Yu (Orion Lee), a young, idealistic Communist.
Through Michael Fowkes’ handsome, artistic puppetry, Shou-Yi and followers embrace the peasants, relating their own stories of suffering under the wealthy, and force the landowners to work aside peasants in their fields. “What was impossible is now possible, if we all work together,” Shou-Yi tells the doubting masses.
The couple get married, but as Communism rises in power, leaders,especially jealous, over-zealous Ting (Celeste Den), cruelly interrogate De-Hong because of her privileged background. and send her to a detention center, while banishing Yu-Fang to a far-away province to survive on her own.
Meanwhile, young daughter, Er-Hong (Emme Fuzhen Ricci, and later Katie Leung as grownup Er-Hong), is indoctrinated at school.
After Shou-Yu revisits the poor and witnesses their worsened impoverishness, he writes a letter, criticizing the party for not living up to its promises. He is labeled a traitor and sent to a labor camp. So are his supportive wife and daughter. Despite his horrible treatment, Shou-Yu later clings to his ideals, refusing to accept special favors curried by pulling influential strings.
Director Sacha Wares leads a fine cast of 17, including Katie Leung as grown-up Er-Hong, (Leung portrayed Harry Potter’s girlfriend Cho Chang in the famous movie series), and a large, talented chorus of Boston actors.
Miriam Buether’s sets, coupled with multi-award winner Wang Gongxin’s stirring videography, Tim Reid’s projection designs, Tom Rand’s realistic costumes, Gareth Fry’s shattering sound effects and D.M. Wood’s dramatic lighting are eye- and ear-popping, captivating the audience’s attention. And Movement Director Leon Baugh leads the cast from simpler times to militaristic marches, set to Zenghui Qiu’s music.
Unfortunately, Jung Chang’s book is banned in China; and even though Woods’ adaptation cuts it substantially, Chang wrote she’s pleased it maintains the integrity of her story.
BOX INFO: One-act, 90-minute play, adapted from Jung Chang’s memoir by Alexandra Wood, appearing at American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge, through March 11. Recommended for ages 10-above. Performances are: Feb. 28, March 1,2, 6,8,9, at 7:30 p.m.; March 3,10, at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 29 March 7, at 2,7 p.m.; March 4,11, at 2 p.m. only. Check for post-performance programs. Tickets begin at $25. Call 617-547-8300 or visit www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org.