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Emotional Colors

TheatreWorks tackles time and red tide to mount Chay Yew's 'Red'

By Marianne Messina

IN A CLIMATE of political hysteria like that during China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76), one doesn't always get to work through issues of self-worth from the comfy couch of a psychiatrist's office. As the Red Guard burned its way through traditional Chinese art, imprisoning or torturing artists and intellectuals, a woman's every internal struggle could play out as a friend's arrest or a parent's torture.

Playwright Chay Yew gives us one such woman in Red, TheatreWorks' current production, now playing at the Lucie Stern Theatre. Ling (Grace Hsu) is a young Red Guard member (female Maoist: good); her father, Hua (Francis Jue), is a traditional Chinese Opera star (pampered artist: bad) from whom she must force a confession ("crimes against the people").

When the three-actor play opens, we meet the contemporary scion of the 30-year-old family trauma, successful Asian romance novelist Sonja Wong Pickford (Allison Sie). Sie's Sonja drags the audience into this picture, kicking and screaming with one of those pleasant though frivolous facades, self-centered but forgivable—the kind of facade that sets off some gut-level alarm warning, Don't scratch the surface. So when Sonya pleads, "Don't do this!" (as in, let's not go there), the audience squirm factor is around 10.

Grace Hsu nimbly maneuvers us through Ling's sweeping character arc, from gleeful 10-year-old, licking sweets off her fingers, to savage, puffed-chested Red Guard comrade, dropping her voice about two registers. As Hua, the once-celebrated Chinese Opera star, Jue is lovable, and his grace, especially in the hands, can weave enchantment. But the Hua role requires (besides internalized choreography) aging over time—more time, it seems, than production schedules allow. So there are moments during which Jue lets us feel the shortcuts—the inner coach saying, "Think Diva," the roughly paced "I was sold to the opera school at the age of 6" speech that plateaus early and has several brushes with melodrama.

It would be easy for such extreme dramatic tension—love under torture, horrendous guilt—to overpower without some counterbalance like comedy. Yew chooses a different path, the Chinese Opera path best described by Hua when he tells Sonja where to find her story: "Find it in the silence, find it in the cracks, find it in the details." TheatreWorks' scenic designer, Ching-Yi Wei, gives us her magical placement of lights and fragile paper lanterns. Steven B. Mannshardt's soft lighting catches the curlicues of cigarette smoke slow-dancing in the air. Cries, heated arguments, the rigid march of beatings are balanced by the silent fog rolling out over the stage or a fluid, graceful hand. In beautiful choreography by Jamie H.J. Guan, daughter mirrors father—they dance the opera synchronously; they smoke in identical postures, using the same gestures, inhaling simultaneously—and the expanse of time between the generations seems to disappear. Sometimes the visual bond between father and daughter is more touching than drama or words, and in keeping with Hua's advice, the production safeguards the heart of the story in silence and details.

Red, a TheatreWorks production, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm (with added 2pm shows Saturday, July 24 and 31) and Sunday at 2pm (with added shows at 7pm on July 25 and Aug. 1) through Aug. 8 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto. Tickets are $20-$50. (650.903.6000)

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From the July 21-27, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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