Incident at Hidden Temple

Incident at Hidden Temple, Pan Asian Rep

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto – photo: John Quincy

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s current production—the world premiere of Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple—is an evocative reminder of a pivotal piece of World War II history, and its title reminiscent of my favorite mystery novels—the Tang Dynasty adventures of Judge Dee. Part noir murder mystery and part political showdown, the play takes place in Southwest China in 1943. Under the direction of Kaipo Schwab, the production opened January 26 at Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.

U.S. Flying Tigers squadrons are helping the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek (played by Dinh James Doan). In the first of the play’s many short scenes, an American pilot (Nick Jordan) is murdered by a Chinese woman (Rosanne Ma).

Nearby, a train stops at a place called Hidden Temple, and journalism student Ava Chao (Ying Ying Li) disembarks to stretch her legs. She meets Chinese-American pilot trainee Walter Hu (Tim Liu) and a mysterious blind man (also played by Dinh James Doan).

Ava’s younger sister Lucy (Briana Sakamoto) also talks to the blind man, who tells her a story. In one of the play’s most charming moments, he and she act out the story using classical Chinese gestures and body movements. When Lucy disappears, Ava seeks help in finding her from U.S. General Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), head of a Flying Tigers squadron.

Soon, several mysteries are in play. Why was the pilot killed? Why is Walter Hu pretending to be someone else? What happened to Lucy? Will any of the characters ever be pure enough in heart to see the hidden temple?

Meanwhile, on the stage of world power politics, larger issues are unresolved. Van Holt wants to cooperate with Chiang and build a forward air base in the eastern region of China from which U.S. planes can attack the Japanese islands directly. General Stillwell, through his aide (Nick Jordan), opposes this plan. The Japanese are the immediate threat, but Mao’s Communist forces in the north also must be reckoned with.

Act One does a good job in setting up the multiple conflicts and questions. While Act Two has resonant moments, it isn’t as strong, relying on some unlikely coincidences and encounters. Ultimately, though the story questions are answered (except the biggest one, which the playwright leaves to the audience), there’s almost too much to bring together smoothly.

The staging and the acting overall are excellent, with Dinh James Doan and Ying Ying Li deserving special mention. Set designer Sheryl Liu, in tandem with Pamela Kupper (lighting), creates just the right amount of moody atmospherics on a stripped-down stage.

For tickets, call Telecharge: 212-239-6200 or Special performances and discounts are detailed at the Pan Asian Rep website.

A Dream of Red Pavilions

Pan Asian Rep, red pavilions, red mansions

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

This iconic 18th-century Chinese novel has been ambitiously brought to life by Jeremy Tiang. Produced by the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, it will play at Manhattan’s tiny Harold Clurman Theatre through February 14. Tiang wisely [!], pared down the novel’s 500 or so characters to fewer than 20, played by 10 actors. Multiple subplots also had to go, though the core story of two young lovers doomed by Jia family trickery remains.

In a 1958 article in The New Yorker, British literary critic Anthony West called The Dream of the Red Chamber (by author Cao Xueqin and, possibly, others) the equivalent of The Brothers Karamazov to Russian culture or Remembrance of Things Past to the French (or so says Wikipedia; the original article is not available online). Scholars who study the novel exclusively even have their own title—“redologists.”

It would be impossible to fully present not just the plot of the novel, but also its many insights into the ways Confucianism, Buddhist teaching, poetic sensibility, ancient myths and symbols, and belief in the spirit world affected everyday life in Qing Dynasty China. More clear to modern audiences is how court politics could disastrously affect even a prominent and wealthy clan such as the Jias.

To suggest some of this richness, the theater’s spare set is augmented by projections onto a large rear screen and two smaller side screens. Chinese music plays at just the right moments, and the costumes are spectacular. If you are familiar with classical Chinese literature (I’ve read the version of this novel called A Dream of Red Mansions; it’s also called Dream of the Red Chamber), you’ll be aware of what lies behind these glancing cultural allusions, though that is not at all necessary to enjoying the play as a semi-mythical, even allegorical work.

Tiang condenses the story about young love and the downfall of the Jia family to a multitude of brief scenes, and directors Tisa Chang and Lu Yu keep the action moving. The fine, mostly young cast members inhabit their roles beautifully, with special appreciation for Kelsey Wang as the doomed lover Lin Daiyu, and Mandarin Wu in several roles, notably the enchanting (and enchanted) dancer Fairy False. Amanda Centano delights as the maids.

While Anita Gates in the New York Times regarded the play as “a pretty curiosity,” I found it a rare treat.