Audiences walking into the theater for the world premiere of “Snow in June” are greeted by a winter wonderland. Snow is about knee-deep on the expansive stage of the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Mass. and it’s still coming down quite hard before the play begins. At the rear of the open stage a giant, colorful Chinese artwork is hung, precariously tilted. The effect is eerie and quite beautiful.
But as this short, intermissionless work, based on a 13th-century Yuan dynasty play, unfolds, it’s clear this theater piece is a case of texture outstripping text. That may, in fact be the point of director Chen Shi-Zheng’s adaptation of this Chinese tale, with a text from contemporary writer-appropriator Charles Mee.
The folk tale centers on Tiu O, an innocent girl who is convicted of a murder. Before her death, she vows revenge on her enemies and the society that allowed it to happen. Her revenge: making it snow in June. In Mee’s adaptation, the girl herself returns to deliver comeuppance. End of story, end of play, cue the snowstorm.
It’s not the story but the telling that makes the work mesmerizing, if rather emotionally chilly. There’s no subtext to play, and the personalities of the actors are restrained (the fine cast includes Rob Campbell, Thomas Derrah and David Patrick Kelly, who manages to be engagingly sly as the widow). Beijing Opera actress Qian Yi remains a ghostly, blank presence as she relentlessly inches her character through the snow. Her aria at the end should allow for some welcome emotion, but it seems to get lost in the drifts.
Director Chen, best known for his production of the epic Chinese opera “The Peony Pavilion,” is not after naturalistic storytelling. His theatrical vocabulary of movement, speech, music and design is to be appreciated on its own. Indeed, the backstage space is open for all to see, and members of the chorus often work at shoveling the ersatz snow into wind machines to create the occasional captivating storm.
The mixture of styles combines elements from East and West, mixing Brecht with Beijing and throwing in a touch of Robert Wilson as well as a healthy dollop of kitsch. A suitably eclectic score by Paul Dresher features bluegrass, Cajun, Asian and art-rock music performed by his group Andromeda. Costumer Anita Yavich gets into the funky spirit of things, too, with a weird mix of outfits and props: The Widow carries a round, clear plastic handbag with nothing in it. The Judge rides around in an electric rolling chair topped by a goldfish in a small aquarium. The chorus wears tank tops and T-shirts and carry lighted rakes, which come in handy in the snow. That is, when they’re not busy with their Tai Chi exercises.