Why Dream in Inglewood?
This cheeky question is the name of an ambitious new LA theatre company. And they respond by making a reality out of what seems a wild idea — staging Dream of the Red Chamber in Inglewood’s Vincent Park.
What, you may well ask, is Dream of the Red Chamber?
Chinese literature lovers know it as a classic 18th-century novel, the many-stranded, meandering tale of a noble family’s decline. LA playwright Henry Ong (Madame Mao’s Memories, Sweet Karma) has wrestled this dragon and transformed it into four hour-long plays – the first time it has been given theatrical form in English.
Why Dream…? stages it ambitiously, in both senses of the word. The saga spreads over six hours (including two intermissions and a meal), requiring the talents of 13 actors and a musician — and it wanders (or ambits) around the park, using several areas of the large outdoor amphitheater as well as the cozy indoor Willie Agee Playhouse.
Ong and company also take on the daunting challenge of creating and keeping distinct more than 30 characters. At the same time, they must help us hold on to who fits where in the complex web of a four-generation family, its servants, and the monks and nuns (both Buddhist and Taoist) and imperial officials who enter their life.
Surprisingly, the production is simple and unassuming. We gather informally while the cast sits above us on a tree-shaded knoll. Ong introduces the play, the actors — even the audience (most of whom he’s chatted with before the show, borrowing a pen to write down our names).
The actors and a musician are comfortably dressed, not burdened by ornate costumes. They move in and out of position in full view, often shifting characters before our eyes, sometimes retreating behind a tree or a row of seats. They chat with us on breaks, while grabbing snacks and water.
Yet, at day’s end, I was astonished at how well we’d connected with these vivid characters, their intricate story, and the formal culture they lived in. That’s a remarkable achievement, and credit belongs to everyone involved – Ong and co-director Kila Kitu, the actors, the tireless musician/composer Long Chu, choreographer Annie Yee, the minimal but clear costume choices by Benita Elliott and Shirley Nii, and stage manager Stella Ong’s unobtrusive shepherding of the troupe, the audience and the equipment.
These artists create an ensemble, where everyone pays attention and cooperates (especially in unexpected impromptu moments). With such a true ensemble, it’s hard to single out performers. Still, the arresting Taylor Hawthorne (as the hero, Pau-Yu) and the elfin Bianca Lemaire (as the heroine, Black Jade) carry the central love story with seeming ease. Each also finds ways to blend modern American speech inflections and non-verbal cues with classical Chinese gestures, so we always feel precisely what they’re feeling and know just what they’re thinking.
Joe Luis Cedillo and Juanita Chase provide the other “backbones” – he alternating (at times instantly) among family patriarchs and minor characters; she maintaining the driving force of Phoenix, a daughter-in-law who becomes the power behind the matriarchal throne. Bruce Lemon’s intelligent portraits of rising young men in moral crises; Kristopher Dowling’s oily self-confidence as a trickster; Kori Denise’s mercurial shifting among girls, wives and servants; and Robert Paterno’s leaps between genders, all enrich the world with individuals of every class and type.
In a time when ignorance makes anything foreign look frightening, Dream of the Red Chamber introduces us to an unfamiliar, puzzling world. Once there, we discover people who love and lose and scheme and sorrow just as we do. They may have lived centuries ago, halfway around the world, but after we have spent a day as guests of their family, they have become part of ours.
One of theatre’s most crucial jobs is to surprise our expectations. The artists of Why Dream in Inglewood? intend to do just that. And they succeed. In a city park shared with children and ice-cream trucks, they take us on a comfortable, easygoing journey into the unknown world of classical China (portrayed by actors of varying ethnicities). We end the journey delighted with where we’ve been, unable to believe six hours have passed. This cycle of plays, and this company, deserve a long life; we need them to help us dream.
Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin, adapted and directed by Henry Ong; co-directed by Kila Kitu.
Presented by Why Dream in Inglewood? at Ed Vincent Park, 714 Warren Lane, Inglewood 90302.
Tickets: Free, at (310) 450-9522 or www.facebook.com/dreamoftheredchambertheplay .