Before you go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer, should you have tickets to see Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, you will receive an email. The email will say “Know Before You Go: ‘Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land,’” and it will contain links to a YouTube playlist with a variety of videos about the play, including the director’s notes, a short piece on choreography, a video on actor research and more.
Do you need to watch them, or read the piece Portland journalist Dmae Roberts wrote at Oregon ArtsWatch about the play’s writer and director, Stan Lai, before you see the play?
No, but unless you’re well-versed in 20th-century Chinese history (at least the basics), all of that background might be helpful. Or, doing what millions of playgoers the world over have done, just go see it. Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land contains both laughter and tears and, just FYI if you’re worried about it being “challenging,” Shakespearean language is far more difficult for most people to understand. The play makes for a highly pleasant afternoon or evening even as it takes apart what theater means, or can mean, and just how those meanings get created.
This modern classic has three narratives. I think it’s almost as enjoyable to approach the play without knowing too much about what’s going to happen, so you could stop reading this review right now and know that I think it’s well worth the time and money. Suffice it to say that the stories are like an onion — or as the donkey in Shrek would have it, a layered parfait — and what audience members think they’re seeing might not be what’s actually happening. From the beginning, whenever the audience is ready to be invested in an emotion (grief, joy, fear, confusion), the play confounds the emotion. That’s part of its point.
But let me say a little more about those plots, specifically, in case you want some details: Do you love historical dramas that contain personal tragedy and loss? Well, one strand of the play, a strand that concerns what happened in China in 1949 and then what happened in Taiwan in the 1980s, will affect you. Do you love farce, Peking Opera, slapstick, broad comedy that contains a point or two? Another strand of the narrative will draw your attention. And do you love commentary on the rehearsal process, on what actors and directors and stage managers do, tailored to the OSF space and containing in-jokes? That third strand of the play will be your favorite.
This braid of three strands is intellectually rewarding, combined, and like the fest’s 2012 play Medea Macbeth Cinderella, the three overlap and comment on each other (in this case with one driving intellect behind all of them). So maybe yes, you should watch at least the YouTube interviews with writer/director Stan Lai before you go.
Lai’s many plays are so popular that, Roberts says in her interview with him, he had to fly to China immediately after the April opening of Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land at OSF so that he could head into productions of nine other plays this year. This play alone has had more than a thousand unauthorized productions within mainland China, and hundreds of authorized productions as well as a movie, directed by Lai and starring some of the original company that created the play in 1986. In the U.S., this is the first professional production, but hardly the first production.
Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land is a canny play, with at least one character whose journey never gets resolved. The character Mysterious Woman, played by Regan Linton — like many people whose families were torn apart because of the war between Nationalists and Communists in China, the one that tears the lovers in the “Secret Love” play apart — never finds the person she spends the play looking for. As a matter of fact, no one from either of the play-within-the-play companies even understands the name of the person she’s looking for, and they each assume she’s part of the other’s play. And audience members aren’t clued in either. I heard many discussions about that character as we exited the theater. Then there’s the missing tree …
The afternoon that reviewers who were in Ashland for outdoor opening weekend saw this play, one of the leads wasn’t there: Instead of Cristofer Jean as Jiang Binliu, we saw understudy Will Dao. I thought he did a wonderful job, especially in the first act. I wonder what I’d think of the tall, mobile-faced Jean in that role; I might have to go back to see how his willowy, often snarky self performs against Kate Hurster as Yun and Vilma Silva as Mrs. Jiang compared to how the shorter, more solid Dao appeared.
The male lead of the other play-within-a-play strand is Eugene Ma, playing Tao (and also playing an actor who’s a bit of a diva). Ma’s slapstick is precise and coordinated beautifully even though I will admit to growing increasingly tired of the buffoonery — but again, that’s part of the point. Tao journeys between the pedestrian world represented by his poverty, his wife (the excellent Leah Anderson) and his wife’s lover (played by Paul Juhn; more on him in a minute) on the one hand; and Peach Blossom Land, where peace and love and butterflies and happiness are in abundance along with loving, kind mirror images of his wife and his wife’s lover. That storyline is often interrupted by the fact that both plays-within-the-play are supposedly scheduled for rehearsal on the Bowmer stage at the same time, and much comedy gold emerges from the performances of Juhn (who clearly runs the second troupe) and that second troupe’s not-too-bright stagehand, played by Joe Wegner. Meanwhile Kevin Kenerly plays the role of the stage manager of the “Secret Love” portion, and he’s pretty great too. Props to the whole company, as a matter of fact, including Susana Batres, who plays a nurse in 1980s Taiwan in the “Secret Love” part.
I have no real idea about how any of these actors get along with each other or the run crew, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves and working together with ease. In-jokes abound in the script. Every media person will intimately understand the “Talk to Susan in the office” bit about making a plan to talk with Artistic Director Bill Rauch (and hey Susan, we all adore you, thanks for everything, etc. etc., for real). There’s a moment in the play where the Director tells Vilma Silva to stop using a Spanish accent to indicate that she’s Taiwanese. That joke makes extra sense if you’ve seen Silva as Lady Capulet in the Alta California-style Romeo and Juliet of 2012 or if you go to The Count of Monte Cristo and hear her using a similar accent to indicate that her character, Mercedes, is Catalan, not French.
That’s silly, serious (why is Spanish the place U.S. actors and directors go to indicate “foreign”?), smart, biting and just plain fun — like the play itself. I am so glad I saw Secreet Love in Peach Blossom Land, and I’d love to see it again (with Cristofer Jean) after I watch all of those YouTube videos.
I’m especially interested in the video with choreographer Carol Chia-lin Ma. Since I’ve called OSF out before for various reasons related to who’s in charge of “Asianness” at the festival, I want to say that I much appreciate that this year, OSF called in both the man who created this play to direct and also hired Ma, who’s a Peking Opera specialist, to do the choreography. I appreciate that the festival has kept on evolving and talking about how to support not only Asian and Asian American actors but also other theater artists and behind-the-scene workers. May OSF’s audiences respond … and expand.