It pains me to have to say this– which is why I’ve probably put it off– but the A.R.T.s latest production and world premiere– is the biggest disappointment of the season: WILD SWANS is a real turkey. There’s a good chance you were one of the more than 13 million who read Jung Chang’s 1991 record-breaking international best seller– about three generations of women and their torturous lives under Chinese Communism.
Its translation from page to stage was one of the most highly anticipated theatrical events of the year, co-presented by the Young Vic and Actors Touring Company. A sprawling historical saga and a deeply personal and emotional memoir, WILD SWANS was ripe for politically resonant, rich story-telling, stagecraft, and performances.
This production written by Jung Chang herself, adapted by playwright Alexandra Wood, and claustrophobically directed by Sacha Wares suffers on all counts. How can three generations and their turbulent political, social, and psychological history be boiled down to 90 minutes? It can’t. Underwritten and under-imagined, the play positions its sometimes bad actors like figures on a horizontal Chinese scroll painting, flatly lit but without delicacy and detail–stiffly going through the external motions of their hardships, monotonously sowing, reaping, farming.
At one point, real dirt is carted in, only to have us sit through a long and laborious scene change later that involves all the actors sweeping and raking it up! (I’m reminded of what Olivier said about method actors going to the trouble of physically hurting themselves in order to convey same on camera– rather than ACTING. Instead of all that real dirt, how about some inventive stagecraft?) I get it. Life was hard and long and monotonous. Thank god for Beijing video artist Wang Gongxin whose video screens suddenly pivot open the back wall, dimensionalizing the set, instantly turning country into city– thus saving us from sitting through on set building construction.
And what about the interior landscape of these characters? I didn’t know them, and the plot was confusing. I felt only tedium-as if I were under house arrest, doomed to watch people imprisoned by fanaticism and a misguided sense of honor, but without a sense of who they were and what they were feeling. The play feels strangely ungrounded– there’s no visceral sense of place; it feels neither personal nor epic–rather like an outline or a blueprint for play that has yet to be written. The ending, sudden and stilted, leaves the audience perplexed at what has just happened– or didn’t. What a waste of a good book.
Through March 11 American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.