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.