So big and bold are the sheer size, ambition, cast, scenery, costumes, music and, presumably, cost of “The Woman Warrior” that it immediately becomes an event in the annals of non-profit theater. No wonder it took three big non-profit organizations plus independent film producer Martin Rosen and his Nepenthe Prods. to bring it to fruition.
Why then does it fail to live up to its elating possibilities? First, Deborah Rogin’s stage adaptation of Maxine Hong Kingston’s two memoirs of growing up in Stockton, Calif., in the 1940s and ’50s, the eldest daughter of Chinese parents, has problems finding a focal point in its East-meets-West source material. Second, too much of the acting lacks the panache needed to pull off such a saga, which ranges from life in a Chinese laundry in Stockton to the rarefied stylization of ancient Chinese myths, fables and customs. Finally, the production as a whole never quite jells as an exotic theatrical spectacle the way, say, “M. Butterfly,” did.
The first of the production’s acts is its weakest, and once all three are over it seems clear that matters would be improved if the play were tightened and the three acts telescoped into two. This might also help it focus more firmly on the character who, it seems, is meant to be the focal point, that of Kingston herself, who was so battered by the opposing forces of China and America as she was growing up that during her teens she lapsed into silence and was bedridden for a year. Writing “The Woman Warrior” (1976) and “China Men” ( 1980), both literary awardwinners, helped her exorcise her ghosts.
Ghosts are at the heart of the memoirs. Kingston’s mother, who followed her husband to the U.S. in 1940, categorized all other nationalities except the Japanese as “ghosts.” Hence Kingston’s childhood was awash with them, not only the white ghosts of America (the white American characters here wear shiny white half-masks), but also the Chinese ghosts of the endless stories her mother told her, stories that freely mixed fact with myth to the point where young Kingston was unable to tell the two apart.
One of the main mythical characters in the play is its title character — a strong, all-conquering Chinese woman warrior who Kingston aspired to be. She identified so closely with Fa Mu Lan that the production might be considerably strengthened if the actress playing the Daughter/Kingston role also played Fa Mu Lan.
Although this is a co-production that will eventually be seen at all three theaters involved with it (it played the Berkeley Rep May 13-July 10 and will be seen January in L.A.), each theater will have a different cast. In Boston, the two most compelling performances are those of Emily Kuroda as Kingston’s mother when she was a young woman studying to be a doctor in China, and Lisa Tejero as the sister Kingston’s father never talks about, who had a baby by a man other than her absent husband and then committed suicide and murdered the baby by jumping into the family’s drinking well with it. Kim Miyori as Fa Mu Lan is more than adequate.
As the Daughter/Kingston, Lydia Look is at her most telling when relaxing into her own age as the mature Kingston; she tends to push too vehemently as the teenage girl. And somehow Lisa Lu (who was in the film of Amy Tan’s East-West novel “The Joy Luck Club”) never seems at ease as Kingston’s mother when she was older and in America. Many of the other cast members play multiple roles, from Westernized Chinese emigrants to gorgeously costumed humans and creatures of Chinese myth.
There are individual moments of splendor and intimacy in the staging by Sharon Ott, the Berkeley Rep’s artistic director, but it never ties together all the loose ends in Rogin’s too mundane script.
Ming Cho Lee has designed a vast, stark white box in which the production unfolds. It’s full of surprises. Panels slide, scrims become transparent or are used for projections, a trap in the stage floor allows characters to disappear or appear suddenly, and slings and trapezes bear characters, including the Daughter/Kingston in her sickbed, up and down through space. The gloriously colored costumes, bolts of fabric and dragon faces glow against the white background.
But it’s the music that most helps to weld the production together, ranging from nature noises and tintinnabulations on Chinese instruments to snatches of American jazz. Some of the dialogue is spoken, in melodrama fashion, against a musical background; other dialogue is chanted, often in unison by a number of characters, to the beat of the music.
There are so many fascinating elements here, including a brief overview of Chinese repression in the U.S., that it’s unfortunate “The Woman Warrior” doesn’t have more impact. Perhaps there’s time for further work before its L.A. production.