“Snow in Midsummer?” said the lady at the box office as she handed me my tickets, adding “I wish!”
And there was a certain irony in the fact that the final production of this OSF season which is concerned, among other things, with strange weather phenomena, should open when the Rogue Valley was experiencing the uncomfortable and dangerous effects of heat and smoke. Indeed, as audience members walked into the Angus Bowmer Theatre, signs outside informed us that the outdoor production that night had been cancelled.
There was some laughter early on as characters commented on the drought and prayed for rain, but this is not a witty satire on our contemporary situation, specially written for 2018 Ashland: it is a reworking of an ancient story, set in a small Chinese village. It is a story of capitalism and injustice, of powerful men abusing vulnerable women, and of spiritual traditions threatened by ‘progress’. This production is, in part, a murder mystery, in part, a ghost story and, in total, it is a triumph. You may read on without fear: I include no plot-spoilers. It could just be the best non-Shakespeare serious drama which OSF has staged in years.
This adaptation by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig was originally presented in England in 2017 by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, as part of their Chinese Classics Translations Project, a cultural exchange which has some parallels with OSF’s own Play on! project. It was directed there by Justin Audibert, who also directs this production. There are no members of the original Stratford cast in the OSF version, which features a number of actors who have been seen before at the Festival, and one newcomer whom I hope we see again.
It is always a pleasure to attend the opening performance of a play, to get the sense of the team behind a production enjoying seeing the fruits of their labour finally onstage, and, indeed, the whole OSF company supporting their colleagues. It is also an opportunity to see that people still like to dress up for the theatre – I myself was wearing new shoes!
This is a particularly strong cast, and, although not all the actors who are household names (yet!), there is no doubting the calibre of the acting pedigree of this ensemble. There are two central female roles in the play: Dou Yi, falsely accused and convicted of murder, who has been executed and now returns as a ghost to seek justice; and the businesswomen Tianyun, whose past connections to this village we learn as the play progresses. I was reminded at times of Destiny of Desire and its revelations of family relationships, but the revelations here are very different in tone and weight.
Dou Yi is played by Jessica Ko, who gave an outstanding performance last year as the Shapeshifter in Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. She is magnificent in this role, not least in her vocal and emotional range. Tianyun is played by Amy Kim Waschke, whom we also saw in Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, and, in 2016, in a range of roles in Vietgone: she is completely immersed in this role, and, towards the end, I believe I saw real tears in her eyes. The male members of the cast include the excellent James Ryen, who was also in Vietgone, and Daisuke Tsuji, making a welcome return after playing a memorable Fool in King Lear in 2013.
The newcomer is Olivia Pham, a young girl from California not yet in high school. I calculate her to be ten years old: I have clothes older than that! She is an actor of consummate skill and a winning charm. Her role as Tianyun’s adopted daughter is pivotal: as a child she sustains a belief in traditional values and the older spiritual traditions. At one point she withdraws from the world, refusing to speak and forming an alliance with a factory worker who refuses to obey the evacuation order to leave the village.
This is at times a visually stunning production. There are dragons, there is dancing, there are rituals — but there is an economy of action, a flow between scenes, and an effectiveness of stage design and lighting. Its crucial moment is the speech by Dou Yi, a monologue just before her execution. This is a coup de theatre and the director has made the decision to bring up the house lights, thus implicating the audience in the execution and the diatribe against society which Dou Yi delivers. She accuses us of remaining silent in the face of injustice, and murmurings around me suggested that that message had hit home.
I’d like to comment on one other aspect of the direction, and that is that Justin Audibert trusts his actors to carry silence. There are pauses in delivery at a number of points of the play where characters weigh up their options. Another director would have had them rush on — Justin Audibert lets them ponder.
Snow in Midsummer runs for less than three months, and I could wish that it had been allotted a much longer season. I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of theatre in the past twelve months – in London and in Prague as well as more locally – this production moved me more than any other.
Geoff Ridden has taught in universities in Africa, Europe and North America. Since moving to Ashland in 2008, he has become a familiar figure on radio, in the theatre, in the lecture hall and on the concert stage. He is artistic director of the Classic Readings Theatre Company and has a particular interest in adaptations of the plays of Shakespeare. Email firstname.lastname@example.org