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A many-layered but ultimately shallow excavation of China's Cultural Revolution

Wednesday, Aug 4 2004
China's Cultural Revolution was not just a decade of "proletarian" violence against artists, professors, authors, and intellectuals; it was also a government-sponsored reign of terror on adults by kids. Playwright Chay Yew mines this generational war in a many-layered play about a Beijing opera star named Master Hua, skilled in the centuries-old male tradition of singing female roles (or dan). Master Hua suffers torture and humiliation under a braided young Red Guard named Ling. Soon we learn that Ling was once a privileged student of Master Hua's -- the first girl, in fact, to apprentice as a dan. ("Femininity was created for men and by men," Master Hua once explained to her. "Femininity is an art.") We watch the older story play out in parallel with modern-day interviews between Ling, Master Hua, and a Chinese-American romance writer (turned journalist) named Sonja. The drama grows slow and overcomplicated, and you have the sense that director Robert Kelley has asked his actors to yell at each other to make up for a sagging script. No one can maintain such stilted anger for over two hours, though. Frances Jue, who's excellent as the mincing, arrogant, prima donna Master Hua, invests his longer speeches with a natural passion; the other actors, Grace Hsu (as Ling) and Allison Sie (as Sonja), get bogged by their lines. For all its layers, Red seems oddly shallow; the material is strong but the plot feels as forced as the Chinese economy.


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