April 19, 2004
By Rob Kendt
The emperor has no clothes--or rather, he's barefoot and wearing white jeans with colorful print designs and a thrift-store jacket over a windbreaker.
Oh, never mind. Just about all that can be said in favor of Peach Blossom Fan, the misbegotten new piece of avant-garde music-theater mounted by Cal Arts' Center for New Theatre at REDCAT in Disney Hall, is a litany of striking if pointless flourishes and fillips. Such as: a spiral staircase lit from within whose steps resemble hot coals in ice-block form; a cloth dragonfly the size of a hang glider tilting downward from above, colored light pulsing down its length like a glow stick inside a kite; a chorus of courtesans, dressed in '80s-vintage miniskirts, strumming ukuleles while braying a nonsense song; a bona fide Chinese opera actor (Zhou Long), incongruously alone amid a cast of Westerners, who wields a mean martial arts staff; a bouncy, yodeling two-step for a snowy mountain scene, which is among the few uptempo moments in Stephin Merritt's otherwise placid, tinkling score; and, speaking of the music, there is the fragrant, lulling tremolo of Li Chen's yangqin, a Chinese dulcimer.
I could enumerate more such diversions and delights, but I'd be hard pressed to connect any of them to each other, let alone to a larger point, a stylistic conceit--in short, a theatrical idea. From what I can tell, hotshot director Chen Shi-Zheng doesn't have one.
Or rather, he has too many ideas, many of them not particularly good ones. For instance: Cast a so-called opera entirely with non-singers, or, arguably worse, poor singers; have a mostly Western cast in modern dress perform it in a half-serious, half-halting movement style borrowed from Chinese opera; have Long, the one actual Chinese opera performer, speak Mandarin amid the English-speaking cast, and just play it straight, as if no one will notice; slice and dice the original 17th-century epic so the narrative becomes plastic, or, in lay terms, near impossible to follow.
Shi-Zheng and librettist Edward Mast seem particularly interested in the character of Yuen Da-Cheng (David Patrick Kelly), a corrupt playwright/impresario who barges in on the courtship of Shiang-Jun (Ja'Nai Amey), a lovely, virginal courtesan, and Hou Fang-Yu (Alan Loayza), a slick, fresh-faced poet, with a keening high note and the fulsome gift of an emerald ring.
The ring is spurned, and this is no small insult to Yuen, who is not a starving artist but a state functionary with, according to one chorus member, "death squads" at his beck and call. Sure enough, Yuen is later seen plotting a palace coup with Ma Shi-Ying (Mary Lou Rosato), a "heroic cavalier" with an eye on the prime minister's post. The childish emperor they install (Matthew Steiner) is a grating brat with a screeching falsetto that sounds like a cross between an off-pitch countertenor and Tom Hulce's Amadeus.
It is when Shiang-Jun, still pining for the now-exiled Hou, is forced to perform, and put out, for the emperor that some of the show's thematic threads seem to come together. This decadent Ming court, soon to be overrun by marauding Manchus, is a self-contained instant-gratification empire whose official artists, represented by Yuen, are only too happy to placate power. Those who, like Shiang-Jun and Hou, remain pure, unmoved by authoritarian temptation, are doomed to exile or death.
This, I imagine, is meant as a critique of our own blissfully ignorant, satiated pop culture, perpetually diverting our eyes from injustice, inhumanity and the like. Early on, a trio of clients at the House of Madame Plum (Fran Bennett, in a blue bob wig) make the point by blithely singing, "Watch the world decay/And dance the night away."
The question, naturally, is whether Peach Blossom Fan--with its tittering chorus girls, stylized movement, lavish design, video effects, awkward stabs at humor, and rarefied storytelling--does not itself represent a kind of decadence.
Peach Blossom Fan does have a few pluses. Though Merritt's score is almost perversely diffident and badly sung, it has some distinctly lovely passages and well-turned lyrics that are occasionally evocative and witty. As a retired flunky, the striking Jon David Casey endows his weirdly formalized movements with a kind of internal logic, and the diminutive Kelly has an assured, always watchable presence. And the young chorus members are limber, enthusiastic good sports all.
Finally, there's something riveting about young Loayza's smug grin as the poet. It seems to embody as well as anything onstage this endeavor's mysterious self-satisfaction. It is a mystery he, and the show, keep resolutely to themselves.