Designer Rachel Hauck’s set for the premiere of Chay Yew’s “Red” at Intiman Theater has a claustrophobic feel. A small, black, raked stage represents a Chinese opera house: A red scrim divides the “stage” from “backstage,” and throughout the play, the three characters trace the same pathways, passing through two open doorways in the scrim.
It’s an apt visual metaphor for the play, which is about three characters trapped by their shared histories. The characters are Hua (Sab Shimono), an aging Chinese opera star; his protege Lin (Michi Barall); and a Chinese-American author named Sonja (Jeanne Sakata), who has come to China to learn Hua’s story. Their relationships play out against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, a time when ancient arts such as Chinese opera were denounced as degenerate and banned.
Like Hauck’s set, “Red” is compact and elegant, but it doesn’t always feel that way. Throughout the whole first act, something seems out of kilter. Different time periods collide, and relationships seem unclear or unstable.
But in act two, certain truths are revealed, nested one inside another like a set of Chinese boxes. And in retrospect the connection between the boxes — the structure of the play — seems crystal clear. As the play’s narrative comes into focus, so does its emotional impact. Feelings suspended by the confusion come to earth to rest.
Despite some truly funny lines, “Red” is not an upbeat play. From the beginning it is obvious that Hua, representing traditional Chinese culture, and Lin, representing the communist revolution, are on a collision course.
For the most part, Yew succeeds in mining the personal out of the political. Once or twice, however, Hua is put in the position of lecturing about the “ruthless and senseless murder of our civilization” — preaching to the audience on totalitarianism’s chilling effect on art as if we needed to be convinced.
But even at these few low points, Shimono as Hua is utterly convincing. Shimono will be remembered on both coasts for his role in “The Wash,” for which he was nominated for a New York Drama Desk award. Here he is proud, severe, hidebound — and yet completely sympathetic.
Barall and Sakata both support him well, in their own ways. Barall’s Lin is spirited but not wise. Sakata’s Sonja, on the other hand, knows too much and tries to hide it with gossip and self-promoting blather. At one point she introduces herself as a romance novelist, “the Asian Barbara Cartland,” drawing a deep laugh from the audience.
Director Lisa Peterson brings actors, sets and Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting into unison. The production is reminiscent of Peterson’s last show at Intiman, the September 1997 premiere of Ellen McLaughlin’s “Tongue of a Bird.” Both plays have an airless, arid quality, and both deal compellingly with the inescapability of the past.