It would be hard to find a more enchanting setting for a play than the Huntington’s Chinese Garden in San Marino. This is the locale for playwright and director Stan Lai’s “Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden,” a site-specific performance piece weaving elements from the 16th century Chinese classic “The Peony Pavilion” with early 20th century California history.
The production, unfolding like an artist’s mystical dream, is a collaboration between CalArts Center for New Performance and the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (in association with the Shanghai Kunqu Troupe and Shanghai’s Theatre Above). Nothing like this has ever taken place before in the Chinese Garden, but the immersive staging seems to have sprouted naturally out of the shimmering landscape.
An audience of approximately 40 is led into a teahouse by guides carrying a lantern and a bell. Theatergoers will be divided into two groups after the opening scene that introduces us to the two narrative strands that will be ingeniously, if sometimes incomprehensibly, braided.
Lai, a prominent voice in contemporary Chinese theater credited with having helped usher in a revolution in modern theater in Taiwan before his influence took hold in mainland China, has worked in the U.S. but is not well known here. One of his obvious strengths as a playwright is in distilling narrative into fluid stage images, metaphoric tableaux that communicate the meaning of scenes more effectively than the plot or the dialogue.
The style of the writing owes a debt not just to the aesthetic values of classical Chinese theater but also to Shakespeare (“The Tempest” is playfully invoked at one point), Luigi Pirandello (especially in the philosophical relationship between an artist and his characters) and the long tradition of dramatists who have sought in the surreal a deeper perception than the rational eye can take in.
“Nightwalk” is constructed as a hall of mirrors. The dreamlike treatment is necessary for a play that dismantles the border between art and life, but it would be easier to float through the garden tale if our fictional bearings were more effectively established at the outset. Unfortunately, the figures in the opening scene whose fates we will separately track don’t come into satisfying focus.
A Ming Dynasty playwright (Hao Feng) sits at his desk musing, in a lovesick manner, on a sad and lovely maiden (Jessika Van) from a wealthy merchant family who is kept isolated while her parents search for a suitable match for her. After he falls asleep in the middle of his creative conundrum, a free-spirited 1920s California artist (Peter Mark) wakes and begins recounting his dream about a Chinese writer who seems to have fallen tragically in love with a character locked into an unhappy fate.
Don’t quote me on any of this. “Nightwalk” is too slippery to summarize. As someone who has taught at CalArts for several years and has experienced more than his share of vertiginous storytelling, I thought I would be well equipped for the journey. But I could feel my frustration growing whenever I took my eye off the alluring spectacle and tried to sort out what I was seeing.
What can be gleaned with some assurance is that the Ming Dynasty playwright is being challenged by the maiden to set her free so that she can play out the story she has every reason to believe won’t end happily. And it appears as if the California artist has been commissioned by Mr. Huntington (Adam J. Smith) — yes, the same Mr. Huntington who built the estate we’re now visiting — to paint the portrait of the quintessential Californian, a task that has only grown more bewildering by the mysterious woman now haunting his imagination.
The audience divides to follow these two hazy plots, which will be performed in intimate pavilions and on picturesque bridges, among other storybook locales. The beauty of the moonlit grounds and the magnificent care with which the mise-en-scène is created go a long way toward overriding some of the playwriting blurriness. (Sets, costumes, lights and sound are designed in perfect coordination, creating a world every bit as magical as the garden itself.).
My group immediately set out on the trail of the playwright and the maiden, whose maid (Reggie Yip) encourages her mistress to experience the bliss of springtime. Qian Yin, a flautist, provides underscoring and a bell is rung at the end of each scene. At times, commotion from the other group can be heard in the distance as well as the beguiling strumming of guitarist Omar Torrez. Characters transform, doppelgangers are suggested and those who vanish seem to be resurrected in new forms.
The story is maddeningly mercurial. Lai’s intricate plotting cries out for more stillness and simplicity, but the imagery is unfailingly arresting. A scroll with painted calligraphy erotically enwraps the playwright (who has morphed into a poor scholar) and maiden in a union that seems as vulnerable as the flowers to the changing seasons.
Both audience groups come together at the middle of the journey for a scene that features a Kunqu actress (Chenxue Luo) singing a passage from “The Peony Pavilion” as the maiden speaks the lines in English. This bewitching performance takes place at a gala thrown by Huntington, whose brash, condescending manner is broadly lampooned. The scene, while boldly imaginative, stretches on a good while, making it only more difficult to catch hold of the play’s elusive rhythm.
By the time my group caught up with the California artist, I was no longer looking for clarity, though I wish I had a better sense of what the character was relentlessly pursuing or escaping. His aims remain a mystery. But Mark is a captivating performer, and a scene in a boathouse in which he wrestles amorously with an attractive ghost (Lizinke Kruger) is seductively staged. (The cast, which includes the flamboyant Sarahjeen Francois and the pungent Eileen T’Kaye, is excellent company throughout.)
Lai establishes all sorts of character correspondences that I’m sure tie the play together neatly for him. But his playwriting logic isn’t easy for an outsider to decipher. Pirandello, who was similarly drawn to dissolving the boundary between reality and illusion, once made the crucial distinction between depicting chaos and depicting chaotically.
That line isn’t always respected in “Nightwalk.” A scene that makes a topic of “The Blue Boy,” the Thomas Gainsborough painting that’s now in a special exhibition at the Huntington showcasing the technical process of conserving an old painting, only adds another distracting layer to the narrative. “The Peony Pavilion” threads would have provided Lai with more than enough material.
But if Lai’s play is dramatically unwieldy, his marvelously controlled staging succeeds as an event. (The production, with its limited audience capacity, is already sold out.) Like “Hopscotch,” the Industry’s experimental mobile opera, “Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden” springs from local soil while tapping into diverse cultural influences. It’s not always possible to piece together what’s happening, but the beauty of this theatrical stroll is its own reward.
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‘Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden’
Where: The Huntington, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Oct. 26.
Info: (626) 405-2100