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Theater summit
East meets West for Snow in June

The American Repertory Theatre studio at Zero Church Street in Cambridge is littered with the familiar detritus of actors at work on a gray afternoon in mid November — empty cardboard coffee cups, sweaters slung over the backs of chairs. Techies watch from the edges of the playing space, hunched over notebooks, holding scripts. Despite the routine clutter of persons and props, a melding of disparate languages and cultures is taking shape.

The scene is a rehearsal of Snow in June, which has been adapted from the 13th-century Chinese drama The Injustice Done to Tou O by director Chen Shi-Zheng and playwright Charles L. Mee, with an original score by Paul Dresher. Along with the creative team, the acting company comprises an East-West match-up between China, represented by actress Qian Yi, and the United States, in the trio of long-time ART regular Thomas Derrah and visiting artists David Patrick Kelly and Rob Campbell. ART/MXAT Institute students form a 12-person phalanx of the proletariat that serves as a moving frieze for the work.

Chen, a veteran of Chinese opera who came to American attention with the 20-hour staging of the kunju opera The Peony Pavilion that he imported to Lincoln Center in 1999, is staging the climax of Snow in June. A character called the Girl has come back as a ghost to take her revenge on the people responsible for her execution. She had been falsely accused and found guilty of a crime she did not commit. Qian Yi is circling the stage in exquisite precision, first in a heel-toe pattern, then in a quick-paced flat bourrée, like a ballerina propelling herself in small, fluttering steps. As she moves, she sings in a high, reedy voice a 15-minute aria excerpted from the original work that she learned while a student at the Shanghai Opera School. A performer with Beijing Opera, Qian Yi made her American debut in The Peony Pavilion and was seen last summer at Lincoln Center in The Orphan of Zhao. She also appeared as a dancer in the production of Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine that the Handel and Haydn Society did in September. All three pieces were staged by Chen.

"The play was written at a time when China was occupied by the Mongolians, so the country was colonized," explains Chen of The Injustice Done to Tou O. "The theme is injustice from every angle of society. I chose this play because there are not these kinds of stories being performed on stage. I realized that the play is similar to articles I read in the newspapers about human traffic. It happens in China where Chinese girls are being sold. They wind up in brothels or being sold as a sex slave. Not much has changed in rural China, because of the law: one child, one family. Everyone wants to have a boy."

The story’s 13th-century dramatization is itself an adaptation of a fourth-century Chinese legend. Paul Dresher says his score, which incorporates the aria sung by Qian Yi, is based on American themes borrowed from "Delta blues, country music, gospel, and other forms. Our idea is to keep it rooted in an æsthetic that is more traditional and rural because the story takes place in the countryside." It will be performed live by the local quartet Andromeda, with the ensemble’s Evan Harlan serving as music director.

Chen found his calling in theater as a child during the Cultural Revolution when he studied singing with an actor who had been forced to abandon his profession and perform menial service. "It was underground. Early on, I studied Russian ballet. At opera school [in Hunan], there were dance teachers for Chinese classical dance and martial arts, also ballet on the side, so I’m entirely movement-oriented." At auditions a year ago with the ART Institute students, Chen realized that he’d have to train the company to move in new ways, "a different kind of vocabulary, a different position of the body, how to make the body expressive. In Chinese opera, you try to create some kind of physical expression, a musicality with the body."

Thomas Derrah, who plays the Boy and also sings, is no slouch in the movement department, with a résumé that includes 15 years of tap-dance lessons and a stint with the Portland (Maine) modern-dance troupe Ram Island Dance Company. He says the actors are "trying to find our way in the Eastern aspect. It’s two worlds colliding. There’s no facial expression; it’s all about the body. We work in front of a mirror. The whole process is very choreographic." He adds that, rather than there being an emphasis on subtext, as in Western theater, "the structure of the work is as broad as the Italian commedia dell’arte, in terms of what people need: ‘I want love, I want food, I want money.’ We’re not talking about psychological drama."

The American Repertory Theatre presents Snow in June November 29 through December 28 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street in Harvard Square. Tickets are $12 to $69; call (617) 547-8300.

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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