The English version of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, part of the current season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, attempts to prove that a story of love, loss and longing can transcend cultural and historical barriers. (China Daily/Katy Bentz)
Do US audiences get Chinese jokes? Do they have to read a 1,600-year-old Chinese classic novel and learn about the Chinese Civil War (1945-49) to fully grasp the nuances of a Chinese play?
It turns out that in the right hands, a story of love, loss and longing can transcend layers of historical and cultural complexities. Stan Lai's Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, the most performed and arguably best-loved contemporary Chinese play, recently opened in a regional theater in the United States, wowing audiences with its magical blend of tragedy and farce.
The English version, translated and directed by the master himself, premiered at Angus Bowmer Theater in Oregon on April 15, and will have a cumulative run of 75 performances through Oct 31. That sets it apart from other Chinese plays that tour the US for a handful of shows, serving more as a showcase of cultural exchanges rather than as a sustainable run in a mainstream theater.
The production is part of the current season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which received a grant of $125,000 from the Oregon Community Foundation "to test new ideas". "For a theater with Shakespeare at its very core, presenting great texts from around the globe represents a logical and profound extension of our mission," says OSF artistic director Bill Rauch.
Rauch says he has been trying to "expand our audience's sense of the classical canon to include classics from many parts of the world, not only Europe and the US," and that he was both enchanted and intrigued to read Secret Love and was eager to share it with audiences.
Lai is confident that many of his plays have the potential to resonate with overseas theatergoers. Other than Secret Love, The Village might be a "surprisingly easy crossover, despite the seemingly topical subject matter," he says. And despite the obvious challenges in length and stage configuration, A Dream Like a Dream perhaps has the greatest possibilities, he adds.
Like Ang Lee, Lai embodies the perfect synthesis of the East and the West, simultaneously immersed in both cultures and creating works that are Chinese to the core yet possessing "legs to travel across the globe", to borrow a Hollywood term. For the US production of Secret Love, Lai sets the story in the Bowmer Theater where the play is performed, but retains the context of the two plays within the play.
He added many lines to inform the local audience of what happened in China in 1949, a requirement to understand the "secret love" part of the story. The notion of "peach blossom land" is eerily reminiscent of Utopia or Shangri-La and it didn't seem to matter if nobody in the audience ever heard of Tao Yuanming. Local media reported that the opening show was attended by many Asians, but none of them appeared to catch the humor easily.