Theater Review | SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Unwatchably dull. Stan Lai’s supposedly genius work of modern Chinese drama, rendered here in English, feels like a thrown together improv of extremely gentle, old-fashioned (and boring) commentary. Mystifyingly, the reign of terror in China that takes place during the play’s time period (1948-1988) passes entirely under the radar. While obviously safe and soft enough to attract the interest and approval of official Chinese media, as well as become one of the most popular plays in China today, the drama-free SECRET LOVE is going to teach American audiences not much about China. The program and educational materials for this show are filled with cultural, historical and literary references galore that the play supposedly draws on and engages, but the main problem here is that SECRET LOVE itself contains not a thing of consequence – at least for a non Chinese viewer not versed in all the source material and history.


SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Thru October 31

For long time consumers of new plays, it’s a familiar syndrome that when a playwright is running short on material, they often go meta on us. You’ve seen these plays. One minute the play is on, the next minute characters are breaking the fourth wall and joking about the actual business of making theatre, rehearsing, dealing with the playwright, etc. For the mainstream audience, these moments can definitely draw a laugh. “Oh my god! Look the play has stopped!” But usually such throw away bits of silliness serve to distract us from the fact that the main event – the story on offer – is weak and the playwright is looking for something, anything, to pad the run time.

That is not to say that there are not many important plays throughout the ages that mess with the official play structure. But the best of those are often dealing centrally with some aspect of how narrative or reality are made. These plays are not breaking the fourth wall because there’s nothing else to do. They’re doing it because the nature of that fourth wall is itself a main concern of the play.

For playwrights with a real story to tell, there is no time for inside jokes about theatre or desire to break the frame and weaken the subject of their focus. There would be no reason for Lorraine Hansberry to weaken RAISIN by stopping the action to let us in on a rehearsal of the play, no reason for Ping Chong to halt the action of THRONE OF BLOOD to reveal a funny disagreement among actors about their personal lives or a fight with the director over what’s for lunch, no reason for August Wilson to show us the making of JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE – when the real JOE TURNER itself is all we need.

But for Stan Lai’s English version of SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND, now getting its American premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, seemingly half the play or more is burned up with backstage funniness and Ashland-specific inside jokes about putting on the play. Given how thin the two main stories in the “real” play here are, it’s no wonder that something more was needed to fill out the slight and inconsequential script. Without the meta stream, the entire show would be about 35 minutes long and we’d turn to our neighbor afterwards wondering: “And…?”

The story such as it is concerns two different theatre troupes trying to rehearse two different plays in the actual Angus Bowmer Theatre – the very one we’re sitting in!!! Sometimes stage reality is so real, people. Somehow owing to a scheduling flub, both groups think they have the space today, and so they go back and forth trying to work in bits of the two plays while the fight for time becomes more acute. Eventually (in the single most enjoyable moment of the play for me) Tony “Harry the Horse” DeBruno arrives as an OSF operations manager to try to clear the melee from the theater. Anyone who has a problem can “call Susan in the office”.

Now, for Ashland devotees there is some fun in this real world setting. Local names and places are used. Arguing theatre people clamor to “call Bill” to straighten all this out. But such thrills of recognition soon pass, and none of this has any bearing on the actual story – other than to help disguise the fact that there isn’t much of a story.

As we’re in a straight up realer than real reality, you can’t help wondering about the gaping holes in the setup. How could two different Chinese-themed plays be scheduled for the same time to rehearse in the Bowmer? Who are these people and how did they get here? Do they not know each other? Are they part of the normal OSF acting company doing another show on the side? Outsider people? Are they traveling the earth looking for somewhere to put on a show? We don’t know.

Don’t think too hard about any of these questions, because after about five seconds of scrutiny the entire framing conceit of the play makes little sense, and it’s hard to understand why so much effort was thus expended setting it up. You would think it could work better if the rehearsal room were, say, in Taiwan or China, where perhaps a more plausible reason for the scheduling error (one with some political context?) could have easily been manufactured. Dramatically, the idea of two different stories competing for dominance is extremely promising. But here it’s freighted with no larger consequence.

One of the stories follows a young couple about to be torn apart by the communist revolution in 1949 Shanghai, and the aftermath 40 years later as the man lies dying in a hospital bed in Taiwan, remembering his young love. The other is a traditional fairy tale about a fisherman whose wife is unfaithful. There are themes here (as we’re told exhaustively in related materials and coverage) of exile and the longing for home, love and loss, etc. But none of that gets dramatized very effectively.

There is some gorgeous pageantry, movement and sound, particularly for the older story. Eugene Ma as the enraged, befuddled fisherman is simply hilarious and an extremely gifted physical presence. But no amount of top notch ingredients, technical capability and scores of talented actors can disguise the fact there’s not much of a there there – er – here. If only all these resources could be marshaled to tell a clear story with something at stake. In SECRET LOVE, we’re told we’re witnessing some classic work of the Chinese stage, but many audience members may simply leave scratching their heads.

There seems to be an excess of respect for Lai and not enough critical appraisal. I’m not familiar with his earlier work, but certainly given how meager the play at hand is, it seems weird that his presence at OSF should be the cause of such reverence. Lai practically had minders sweeping the ground in front of him with palm fronds on the OSF campus. There’s a certain complacency in evidence here, where the audience is told over and over how important and revered Lai is, as if that should be good enough for us. What would serve everyone much better is some work on the stage that calls for actual reverence (like THRONE OF BLOOD a few years back, to recall another recent international work), instead of the cobbled together and highly forgettable piece we got.

Also, the complete absence of any mention of what went on during those 40 years of cheery communist rule that separated our young lovers (when however many gazillion people died) would seem to be a problem and a serious challenge to Lai’s stature as a critical, independent artist. I’m hardly a China expert, but I have to think that if your work is popular or tolerated by a regime whose M.O. is jailing dissident voices, it MIGHT mean your point of view isn’t very sharp.

I did find this comment by crack reviewer Lincoln Kaye who has known Lai and his work for 25 years, which gets at my hunch here: “Compared with his brilliant innovations back then [25 years ago], the current production — especially in English translation — seems the anodyne work of an established theatrical celebrity struggling to surf the treacherous shoals of China-Taiwan-U.S. cultural diplomacy.” Bingo.

All in all, worth seeing perhaps for the costumes and traditional styles used at times, but the show does not hang together as a coherent piece, and it’s hard to imagine it traveling very far beyond Ashland.