Written and Directed by Joanna Chan; Choreographed by Ashley Liang
Produced by Yangtze Repertory Theater
Off Off Broadway, Play with Dance
Runs through 6.22.14
Theater For the New City, 155 First Avenue
by Angel Lam on 6.10.14
Ashley Liang in The Story of Yu-Huan. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
BOTTOM LINE: Fantastic new classical Chinese dance in this important historical drama in two acts.
The Story of Yu-Huan, a Yangtze Repertory Theater production directed by Joanna Chan, is based on the life of Yang Yu-Huan (719-756 AD), the beloved consort of Tang dynasty Emperor Xuan Zong. Known to be one of the most beautiful women in ancient history, at the late age of 26, she won the Emperor’s favor over thousands of younger women that were chosen from all parts of the empire. The Middle Kingdom (China) then was at the peak of a vibrant trade and commerce economy via its Silk Road and maritime trades. The State was recorded to have managed about 19,900 miles of postal service routes by horse and boat. It was a period of exceptional religious and racial tolerance, and extraordinary women, cultured and literate, played dominant roles in both private and public affairs.
Yu-Huan was highly favored by the Emperor, he had appointed 700 laborers to sew fabrics for her. The Emperor’s imperial courier horsemen would take non-stop day and night shifts to bring back to the northern palace her favorite fruit, lychee, from the southern end of the empire. The capital then, Chang’an (present day Xian), was the most populous city in the world.
One of the most interesting aspects of the play is its multi-racial cast, paying homage to the then multi-ethnic Middle Kingdom. The Tang period was at its golden age of cosmopolitan culture. Li Bai, the well known Tang poet, is cited a few times during the play by the court ladies, hinting at the popularity of his poems even during his life time. Li Bai was born in Central Asia and lived as a child in present-day Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. His family later migrated to the Middle Kingdom. At age 19, Governor Su Ting interviewed him and considered him a genius. One can see the Middle Kingdom's openness to new young talents.
This was the time period Yu-Huan had lived in. Yet, this did not spare her from her own tragic fate. During the An Lushan rebellion (756 AD), the officials and followers of Emperor Xuan Zong accused Yu-Huan of distracting the emperor from political affairs. In order to pacify them, she was forced to die a strangling death. Her death coincided with the end of 130 years of unprecedented prosperity in the Middle Kingdom. From then onward, the Tang empire was never the same. Ashley Liang, a dancer and choreographer trained in Chinese classical, folk and ballet, performs Yang Yu-Huan well with a few spectacular dance pieces. Her classical hand-finger movements were particularly interesting to watch.
The dialogues are spoken in both Mandarin Chinese and English without subtitles, with Chinese being the more prevalent language. The Chinese language is very effective in building suspense and drama. It is delivered with great poise and eloquence by the authoritative Bill Engst (as Prime Minister Li). Michael Liu (as Prime Minister Zhang) and Ricky Lin (as Yang Guo Zhong) both add drama and power to the narrative. Lu Zhao (as Lady Yu Zheng), Alison Chi (as Lady Yu Chai), and Ava Cheung (as Lady Yu Pei) perform lively roles as Yu-Huan’s sisters.
During the 44-year reign of Emperor Xuan Zong, the Tang period reached a golden age with low economic inflation as well as a more toned down imperial court lifestyle compared to other dynastic eras. He was seen as a progressive and benevolent ruler, even abolishing the death penalty in 747 AD. The great Tang period is itself a mesmerizing time for contemporary audience, many of the characters surrounding Yu-Huan are strong and multi-dimensional.
The set by Edward Morris is simple and effective; the costume design by Harrison Xu HaoJian is colorful. The production premiered in New York in 1998, now returns with an energetic cast and lyrical choreographies. It is Joanna Chan's final directing project for Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America, which she founded in 1992. The Story of Yu-Huan is definitely a refreshing dramatic treat.
(The Story of Yu-Huan plays at Theater For The New City, 155 First Avenue through June 22, 2014. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30PM; Sundays at 3:00PM; added performance on Wednesday 6/18 at 7:30PM. Tickets are $25 general admission; $20 for seniors and students. Wednesdays and Thursdays are pay-what-you-can. To purchase tickets visit www.smarttix.com or call 212-868-4444.)