"Madame Mao's Memories," now playing at the Old Globe's Cassius Carter Centre Stage, makes you appreciate the artistry of "Evita."
Both shows are true stories about former actresses who rose to the heights of power through the use of sexual favors, who inspired passionate admiration and abject fear. But "Evita" was far more satisfying and not just for being a full-blown musical with all the flashy Andrew Lloyd Webber trimmings.
The insertion of Che Guevera as a commentator on Eva Peron kept the story honest. Every time the audience fell under the sway of those outstretched arms and tearful entreaties, Che put the legend in her place--mocking her, separating the woman from the image she so carefully cultivated.
But in "Madame Mao's Memories," the woman who helped lead China's violent, repressive Cultural Revolution of 1965-1976 gets to tell the whole story herself in flashback form from prison.
This was a choice on the part of playwright Henry Ong, who writes in his notes that he wanted a one-person play because Madame Mao herself "wouldn't want to share the limelight." But writing from Madame Mao's point of view leaves out crucial questions, such as why she embraced the book and theatrical bannings, the executions, the persecutions.
You can infer that in eliminating the classics she was trying to obliterate her own unhappy past. But you have to infer quickly because Ong swiftly moves her past the Cultural Revolution, barely glancing at the violence. And during the trial that followed Mao's death in 1976, Ong barely challenges her insistence that she was only following her late husband's orders.
Still Ong, who has been working on the text since its 1989 Los Angeles debut, is to be commended for turning the spotlight on the former Jiang Qing who died a scant three years ago after a lengthy incarceration in China's Qin Cheng Prison, a now forgotten woman whose fierce will helped her husband rise and stay in power. He has written a role that allows versatile actress Kim Miyori to shine, moving gracefully from old age to exuberant youth with no makeup changes and minimal costume alterations as designed by Andrew V. Yelusich--prison garb to sexy red kimono to youthful shorts and top.
Seret Scott directs sensitively within the play's limitations. Michael Gilliam's lighting brilliantly suggests leaps in setting and time against the backdrop of Yelusich's stark, gray prison set. But an hour and six minutes of this intermissionless show leaves you wishing for more of something else. More insight into Madame Mao, more voices of people who knew her, who suffered because of her. Ultimately, despite Madame Mao's imagined wishes, it is unfair to make her the final judge of her own life.
* "Madame Mao's Memories," Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. matinees, 2 p.m. Ends June 26. $22-$34. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 1 hour, 6 minutes.