Arts theater review

A study of scarlet

Communist ideals and familial duty go head-to-head in Wild Swans

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Orion Lee, Ka-Ling Cheung, and Katie Leung in Wild Swans.
photo by michael lutch. courtesy of american repertory theater

Wild Swans

Presented by American Repertory Theater

Directed by Sacha Wares

Through March 11, 2012

Harvard Loeb Drama Center

In her stage adaptation of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, Alexandra Wood has crafted a vivid portrait of the political turmoil and uncertainty surrounding Mao Zedong’s rule in China. Chang’s memoir, which spans a century of history and covers the lives of three generations of women — her grandmother, her mother, and herself — is a lengthy one, but on the stage, the epic plays out in five acts and less than two hours.

Wild Swans centers on Chang’s mother and father, De-Hong (Ka-Ling Cheung) and Shou-Yu (Orion Lee), as they rise in the communist ranks and eventually fall from grace. Shou-Yu’s ultimate refusal to sacrifice his idealistic principles and protect his family becomes a major point of conflict throughout the play, and Chang’s own character (Harry Potter actress Katie Leung), is still young when she is forced to watch as soldiers command her mother to kneel in broken glass. Yu-Fang (Julyana Soelistyo), the reserved matriarch, bridges the gap between old and new order as she tends to her daughter, reminds her son-in-law of his familial duties, and watches over her granddaughter. Soelistyo, uninhibited by her diminutive stature and limited stage presence, is impossible to ignore.

Despite its gripping storyline, however, much of Wild Swans’ impact lies in the set design. Featuring video design by Beijing artist Wang Gongxin, the set creates maximum impact out of minimal space and requires the actors to play a very physical part in changing each scene. At one point in time, the field workers vigorously push large quantities of dirt off one end of the stage while white-coated hospital workers make their entrance from the other side of the stage, deliberately sweeping away the dust. Through this great amount of energy we can sense the masses of other people that Chang’s one family represents.

After all, Wild Swans tells more the story of a country and a people than Chang’s family alone. The script leaves little room for personal reflection on the part of individuals, but beneath all of the characters simmers a spirit of strength and pain even more collective than their communist ideals. Those 90 minutes may not create characters that we can actually know, but they do create characters that we want to know. It’s just enough for us to begin to understand, and that is its power.

After Wild Swans concludes at the A.R.T. on March 11, it will play at the Young Vic in London from April 13 – May 13.