By: Samuel L. Leiter
June 19, 2022: As someone who has been studying Asian theatre for sixty years—in my salad days I even acted in an “authentic” Beijing Opera directed by a Chinese expert—I was particularly interested in seeing Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s modern updating of Snow in Midsummer. This Yuan period classic play, by 13th-century dramatist Guan Hanqing, is perhaps better known as The Injustice to Dou Yi That Moved Heaven and Earth. Like some of Shakespeare’s plays, it has been subject to multiple adaptations on stage and screen, albeit not in English. The current version was premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Festival in 2017, followed by its American premiere the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2018. One can only imagine that those versions were more satisfactory than Zi Alikhan’s leaden production now running at the Classic Stage Company
The original’s essential story concerns the death sentence given to a young widow, Dou Yi, unjustly convicted of murdering a powerful man named Zhang. In her plea for mercy before being executed, she predicts that if she dies there will be three serious consequences, all of which—like the one in the title—come true, proving her innocence but still not clearing her name. Her ghost returns three years later to seek justice, a goal it eventually achieves.
Within this framework, the plot developments—set in a town called New Harmony—have been altered considerably; the structure also has been changed, so that the truth behind how Zhang was killed—so overblown as to shatter belief—is enacted late in the play, not early. Following the plot’s progress, especially in the first of the play’s two acts, is not always easy.
The chief characters are Dou Yi (Dorcas Leung), much of whose stage time is as an unconvincing ghost; Tianyun (Teresa Avia Lim), a successful businesswoman in her 40s who has come to buy the town’s artificial flower-making factory; Handsome Zhang (John Yi), the gay, guilty son of the man Dou Yi is believed to have killed, who owns the factory Tianyun is buying; Master Zhang (Kenneth Lee), the chief villain, Handsome’s monstrously cruel father; Rocket Wu (Tommy Bo), the man with whom Handsome is in love, and who is distressed to learn, after a heart transplant, that his new organ comes from the late murderess; Fei-Fei (Fin Moulding), Tianyun’s seven-year-old daughter, who has an affinity with the supernatural; Doctor Lu (Mr. Lee again), the corrupt town physician; Judge Wu (Mr. Lee yet again), the lecherous judge who decides to execute Dou Yi when she refuses his advances; Nurse Wong (Wai Ching Ho), whom we are led to believe was Handsome’s wet nurse; and Mother Cai (also Ms. Ho), the woman to whom Dou Yi was sold when she was seven. There are also several minor roles requiring the doubling services of Paul Juhn, Julian Leong, and Alex Vinh.
Snow in Midsummer, as transformed into contemporary terms, has too many melodramatic plot twists and contrivances of the secrets and lies category to recount; lacking theatrical panache in their presentation, they’re impossible to take seriously. Chinese classical drama is a largely musical form, with the words often sung aria-like renditions; moreover, it employs highly stylized movement and gestures. Perhaps a musical version might have worked better than this combination of realism and pseudo-poetic artifice.
Despite being set in the quotidian environment of a contemporary town—barroom scenes are common—which reduces the need for overt stylization, Cowhig’s two-and-a-half hour play contains much that’s clearly intended as high drama. To fully register, it needs to create a world of imaginative innovation, not the mostly realistic approach taken here, which only makes the fantasy elements—like a ghost that crawls around like a child being spooky on Halloween, or the falling of snow—impossible to accept. What should be highly atmospheric is ploddingly mundane, made even more so by the mostly superficial acting that substitutes shouting for big emotions.
The show doesn’t skimp on serious themes, if that’s what you’re hungry for, so you can imagine their presence in the form of climate change (one of Dou Yi’s prophecies is a drought), judicial misconduct, homophobia, illegal organ harvesting, and women’s rights, among others. All are seeded in the action but none have edible sprouts. It might also be pointed out that the production notes point to a need to address anti-Asian violence, ignoring the Asian on Asian violence in the play.
Chinese classical theatre employs the simplest means, usually no more than a table and a couple of chairs, to conjure up its locales, although the costumes are famous for their colorful expressiveness. The minimalist set created here by the design team of “dots,” however, with well-drilled actors shifting a few pieces of furniture from scene to scene, is of little help in clarifying where things are happening, nor is it redeemed by anything remotely interesting, such as the balcony area overlooking the three-quarters round set, or the odd entranceway beneath it. Johanna Pan’s dull costumes fail to offer much visual appeal, either, leaving Jeanette Oi-Suk’s lighting to do the heavy lifting, which it’s only sporadically capable of doing.
A mere fifty people or so were seated in the CSC’s 199-seat Lynn F. Angelson Theater the night I went. To a person, they rose to give the show a standing ovation. I couldn’t help thinking it would be a snowy midsummer day before I joined them.
Snow in Midsummer
Lynn F. Angelson Theater/Classic Stage Company
138 E. 13th Street, NYC
Through July 9, 2022
Photography: Julieta Cervantes