Love, betrayal, family, murder — “The Wilderness” has all the ingredients of a Shakespearean tragedy but a distinctly Eastern flavor.
The mystical play is set in no definite space or time, except for long ago and far from anywhere. Our characters are isolated in the woods with only a railroad connecting them to the rest of the world. As such, it is a symbol of escape they are fascinated by and obsessed with, and even sometimes fear. However, just as no train stops in the wilderness there is no hope for any of our characters.
The play begins with the return of Chou Hu (James Duruz ’03), who was framed for the murder of his own father by his uncle Yan, and who has escaped from jail to avenge himself. Chou Hu finds out that Yan is already dead, and his love, Jin-zi (Nell Rutledge-Leverenz ’03) has been married to Yan’s son, Xing (Dan Berson ’03). Jin-zi is very unhappy in the marriage, and a large contributor to her distress is Qiao (Julie Lake ’05), an overbearing mother-in-law who still has Xing tied up in her apron strings.
Yan’s shadow looms over the household, like his large staring portrait, and all end up suffering as a consequence of his actions.
Written by Cao Yu, “Wilderness” premiered in Shanghai in 1937 and is one of the definitive plays in the history of Chinese theatre. Cao Yu was at the forefront of the new Western-influenced theatre that swept China in the 1930s, before which Chinese theatre had focused mainly on opera.
Adam Chanzit ’03 adapted Cao Yu’s play by modifying two translations and even translating a small portion himself. His interest was piqued when he studied the play last summer in Harbin, China. “The Wilderness” is both Chanzit’s and Duruz’s senior project. Duruz created the original music used in the play.
The result of the chain of betrayal is somewhat predictable, but nevertheless this familiar family drama is presented in a unique way. The dialogue is spare and the characters seem surreal — mythical figures rather than real people.
The modern aspects of the play immediately jump out, the most obvious being Jin-zi in a role that is a reversal of the traditionally obedient Chinese wife. She is manipulative, enjoys sex, and is anything but self-sacrificial. Rutledge-Leverenz gives a good sense of her frustration with a saintly husband whom she simply does not love. Berson plays the stereotypical whipped husband, large hearted but weak-willed, but can’t really make much of this typical nice-but-screwed guy.
Duruz is a sinister as Chou Hu, the “vengeful tiger” with a thirst for revenge that motivates the play. He exhibits a natural ease and is especially chilling in the scene when he addresses the audience, asking us to laugh at the show — his breakdown.
Lake is impressively believable as the nagging blind mother. She is tough, and threatens to “beat rats to death” with her iron cane, but her weakness is revealed when she talks to people she doesn’t realize are not there. Aaron Goldhamer ’03 puts in an excellent bit of physical acting in the comic but sad role of Bai Sha-zi, also called “doggie” and “dumb bastard.”
The set is at first a forest with potted plants, and earthy floor and a curtain of trees — walking into Whitney Humanities Center is like walking into a greenhouse. Later, a room in the house is slid forward — though sparse, the room has a few Chinese touches. The lighting was well coordinated with the set — during one climatic argument, changing to orange gels to build up the tension. The only drawback was a distracting green light that pointed right into the audience.
The original songs added a contemporary edge to the play. Though the discordant music may not appeal to all, it was a fittingly ominous and unsettling backdrop against which the events of the play unravelled. Duruz mixed elements of rock and roll with exoticized and synthesized guitar reminiscent of a Zheng (Chinese zither). The accompanying dance sequences were erotic and added an energy some parts of the play lacked — it would have been more interesting to weave more of this into the play, instead of using it twice to glaze over scene changes.
The performance’s main weakness was the pace of the first act, which was a bit slow. There was a lot of repetitive dialogue; though Chanzit condensed a four and a half hour play into a two hour-long one, more could have been cut. The number of times it was pointed out that Qiao was blind, and yet all-seeing, was frankly insulting. The pace definitely picked up during the second act, when tempers flared and daggers were drawn.
Chanzit enlivened the language of “The Wilderness” to appeal to a Western audience, but this could have been pushed further. As a result, the play was caught between its roots in storytelling in a simplistic timeless fashion and today’s more familiar pyschodrama.