Madame Mao, wife of China’s most-noted Communist leader and notorious in her own right, had a multifaceted and fascinating life worthy of a gripping play. This isn’t it.
For whatever reason, Henry Ong’s script boils down Madame Mao’s turbulent 77 years into about the same number of minutes, and the result is sketchy, frustrating and unfulfilling. Kim Miyori makes a valiant and rangy attempt to recreate the woman’s ambition, motivation and charm, but all too often, Miyori’s performance resembles an audition in which a director repeatedly orders a shift of mood.
Like a TV news documentary hastily prepared after someone’s death, the play covers the life of Madame Mao — born Jiang Qing — through a series of chronological memories bookended by scenes of her conviction and imprisonment for political activities after her husband’s 1976 death.
It’s a quick historical perspective, but too helter-skelter to be involving. Ong has chosen his depictions well enough to make each scene illustrative, but there aren’t enough of them. And transitions are often abrupt.
The part of the story Ong does tell is engaging. Born in poverty, Jiang Qingrebelled early against the subservient role of women, especially the crippling custom of foot-binding. Sometimes using her body to gain sustenance, she eventually graduated from an arts academy and became an actress in Shanghai.
Ong sketches her as vain, self-centered and especially opportunistic, having her seduce Mao more with her physical skills than her political acumen.
Later, however, particularly as Mao’s physical strength wanes, Madame Mao becomes fanatically political.
And like all tyrants, she had to wrestle with hypocrisy — for instance, trying to fit her love for Greta Garbo’s films into the new scheme of morality.
Mao’s death, of course, led shortly to her downfall. She died in jail in 1991 .
This is virtually a one-woman performance, although Miyori is sometimes accompanied by two silent men in expressionless masks and the drab uniforms of Chinese conformity. She does well under Seret Scott’s direction, considering the cut-and-run pace of the script, but is generally more credible in the softer, emotional scenes than the strident political ones.
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