Snow in June.

Snow in June (adapted and directed by Chen Shi-Zheng, text by Charles L. Mee, music by Paul Dresher) at the American Repertory Theater was an interesting mix of dance, theater, song, and some completely amazing technical design. As a visual piece, it was an astounding success; as a play, it was incredibly flawed.
The story itself is relatively simple. A girl’s mother dies, and her father marries her off to the son of a widow. The girl’s husband then dies, leaving her a widow, too. The old widow is saved by a con-man and his son, who convince her that she and the con-man should marry and that she should promise her daughter-in-law to the con-man’s son. When the old widow brings them home to the her daughter-in-law, the girl refuses. After the widow and the con-man are married, the widow has second thoughts; the son then tries to poison her to get her out of the way so he can marry the girl. His father ends up drinking the poison instead, so he blames the death on the girl. She is forced to confess to the murder, and is executed, but her spirit comes back in a blizzard and kills the judge who sentenced her, the son who framed her, and the mother-in-law who promised her to the con-man’s son.
I went into the play expecting something gorgeous, having seen the photos on the ART’s web site, and I was definitely not disappointed. I want to underscore this: all technical aspects of the production were amazing. The set design was nothing short of inspired. When we entered the theater, there was snow falling onto an already snow-covered stage. The backdrop for the entire show was an intricate painting of goldfish, larger fish, and water lilies in the style of a Chinese textile, parts of which blew off in the climactic last scene.
The snow itself was the most striking and well-used element of the set design: it was trudged through, swept, shoveled, thrown, kicked, and blown with fans to create some amazing effects. (Its use reminded me of the last play I saw at the ART, Lady with a Lapdog, which used sand in similar ways. The production also suffered from some annoying direction — for some reason, it was decided that repeating a line ten times would be a good effect to use throughout the performance — but which was overall stronger as a play than Snow.) The ensemble/chorus used some broom/flower/fiber-optic-light props that were really lovely, and served alternately as brooms, torches, dance props, and weapons in some nicely choreographed martial-arts-themed dance sequences. There was also a really cool ambulance made from a bicycle and some Christmas lights, and the judge at the end of the play rode around on a motorized cart with a goldfish tank in front. (Incidentally, the backdrop to the fish tank was a picture of what appeared to be a classically-styled edifice, which I took to be the Supreme Court or some other justice building. The judge spent most of his time on stage obsessively feeding the goldfish in his tank; the girl’s dress was the same shimmery orange as the fish.) With a snow-covered stage, much of the movement looked like floating, particularly the intentionally-shuffling steps of the girl and the movement of the electric wheelchair.
The lighting design was also quite well done. I don’t consider myself enough of an authority on the subject to make much more in the way of specific comments, but suffice it to say that it was a seamless and utterly integral part of the amazing overall visual feel of the production. The hellish effects of blood and flame they achieved during the execution scene — by lighting from below a column of snow blown upward by a fan in the stage — were incredible.
Oh, but I haven’t yet mentioned the music! And the music was the other truly incredible part. Imagine a talented group of musicians playing an original score that was part Chinese, part Appalachian, part bluegrass, and a smidgen of sexy-funky blues-rock for good measure. If you can comprehend that, then you have an idea of how awesome it was. If you can’t quite wrap your mind around that crazy mix of styles, then you also have an idea of how awesome it was. Believe me: it was pretty goddamned awesome.
The real problem was with the script, which fell flat at pretty much every turn. The acting was quite good, particularly the fellow who played the old woman (an amazing cross-cast role), but there was a sense that the actors were not being challenged by the text itself. There was a lot of unrealized potential, I think, and it wasn’t the actors’ fault.
The play felt more like an elaborately staged modern dance performance than a dramatic production: the movement was highly choreographed, which worked well in the sense that the play was a ballet, but which seemed to rub against the grain of the aspects of the production which aspired to straight-theater (which it wasn’t). The mediocre dialogue was broken up by songs, which on the whole were far more interesting than the rest of the text, but which also fell short it terms of lyrics. (The music was all — as I mentioned before — awesome.) I think it would have been a better and more coherent performance had the director not tried to force the straight-theater angle and let the play run free as the visual ballet to which it seemed to aspire. Don’t mistake me: at every turn it was a visual feast. I just felt that it would have been better without any words at all: like a ballet or opera, the emotions were best expressed not by the dialogue or lyrics but by the staging, the choreography, the technical design, and the music. As a piece of theater, it felt held back by the text, and I as an audience member felt tripped up by the tension between the textual and the visual. I wanted it to simply relax and be a dance.
It’s worth seeing for its sheer beauty. Just don’t expect a stimulating script. There isn’t one anywhere to be found.


4 thoughts on “Snow in June.

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